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Ben A.
Ben H.
Doug
Later
     
 
The Mother of All Short-Squeezes

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has proposed a bold initiative to stem the recent fall in his country's stock market.

“If we were permitted to hang two or three persons, the problems with the stock exchange would be solved for ever," he reportedly told a Teheran newspaper.

Sort of makes worrying about losing your stock borrow seem rather petty.

I have to say, Ahmedinejad is proving a strong challenger to Hugo Chavez in the "World's Looniest Quasi-Elected National Leader" race. [Ben H.: 10/31/05 22:23]
 
 
You Read the Wrong NYT Article, Ben H

But luckily, others did not
[Ben A.: 10/31/05 02:31]
   
 
Pension crisis and rarity of annuitization

I broke my rule about reading the New York Times Magazine, because, after all, who can resist reading a Maureen Dowd cultural analysis. You can bet it will deliver fresh insights -- for example, that Generalissimo Franco is still dead.

Actually, I broke the rule because I saw that Roger Lowenstein -- the author of the definitive account of the LTCM blow-up -- contributed a piece on the "pension crisis." It's a good overview of the issue, and I recommend it. One bone to pick, though. Lowenstein outlines some of the shortcomings of defined-contribution plans relative to defined benefit plans, one of which is that a retiree in a defined-contribution plan needs to take affirmative steps to turn his lump sum at retirement into a reliable stream of payments. He notes that few retirees carry out this "annuitization." Lowenstein, however, overlooks the most important reason for the failure to annuitize -- and its connection to the instability of defined benefit plans: life extension risk.

Yes, the real problem is how to deal with *life extension risk*. The insurance company (or other annuity payor) makes an assumption about the mortality curve, but that assumption can turn out to be off the mark. If realized mortality lags estimated mortality, the annuity payor can wind up out of business and the annuity purchaser out of luck. The problem with life extension risk is that it is not obviously diversifiable -- therefore to underwrite it the annuity payor should demand a hefty risk premium. That risk premium makes buying an annuity less than enticing.

Traditional pension plans and the government both already bear substantial life extension risk. Think about what will happen to pension fund deficits and social security actuarial deficits if life expectancy unexpectedly by, say, 2 years. Disaster. The private annuity market therefore cannot look to the government or the corporate sector to underwrite life extension risk. In fact, that companies are shedding traditional pension plans is, in part, because they do not want to bear life extension risk. What about private markets? One natural buyer of life extension risk would be life insurance providers. They make money if life expectancies go up. However, the aggregate life extension risk embedded in term life insurance policies is tiny -- partly due to the relative size of LE policies relative to pensions and partly due to the design of typical term life policies*. It is difficult to see where the natural buyer of life extension risk will come from. Typically, facing a systemic risk, the financial engineer looks for a "natural hedge." You want to hedge the risk of oil prices going up? Talk to the oil producers. But it is not apparent that there is a natural hedge for life extension risk. Those extra years of geezerhood do not correlate with additional productivity. The main benefit would appeat to be hedonic -- most people want to live longer. Yet the idea of old people buying insurance against early death for their own benefit is absurd on its face. A payout for your corpse doesn't compensate you for becoming a corpse!

It has crossed my mind that perhaps it would be worthwhile to try to start up a speculative market in life extension risk**. Maybe punters would be willing to take on a certain amount of this risk at a price below that currently embedded in annuities?

* Life insurers generally do not irrevocably commit to charging a particular premium over the duration of a term policy. The insurer cannot raise the rate on a particular policy selectively, for sure. However, if mortality rates deviate from expectation, the insurer can petition regulators for a rate increase that will be applied to a certain class of policies in the jurisdiction.

** I can think of one transaction that aimed to do this, though the instigator was looking to take the other side of the trade. Swiss Re a few years back marketed a "catastrophe bond" which incurred losses in case mortality exceeded a certain level in a group of developed countries. The insurer undoubtedly was trying to hedge its life insurance portfolio. I don't think the transaction ever got off the ground, though if it had, traditional pension plans or annuity providers would have been natural buyers. [Ben H.: 10/30/05 22:18]
 
 
Fear Displacement

The French people are so right to agitate against Turkish accession to the E.U. I mean, imagine what the arrival of crazy Turks will do the solidarity and stability of the pure French republic.

It's as if your house has been invaded by a bunch of thugs and robbers and you're worried about fixing the lock so that bothersome guests can't stroll in without ringing the doorbell. [Ben H.: 10/30/05 12:01]
 
 
A Bit of America in New York

I blogged Cobble Hill Halloween last year. The profusion of strollers has not diminished in the interim and so I expect the same moppet-mob to descend on my neighborhood this October 31st. On the agenda today: procure a dozen bags of candy, secure in the knowledge that I face no risk of leftovers and the glycemic consequences thereof.

My coworkers expressed some surprise that I would participate in the ritual, pointing out that it does not comport with my pedophobia, opposition to extortion, anti-communitarianism, and (most importantly) generally curmudgeonliness. Their observation is not without grounding. However, I look upon trick-or-treating as an intergenerational compact. I took candy from the homeowners of Pleasantville in the 70s and 80s. Now, since I deplore extortion and welfare in the absence of dire need, I must conceptualize of trick-or-treating along the lines of a different model. I didn't extort that candy; nor did I beg for it. Rather, I borrowed it -- intergenerationally. As a child, on cannot not obtain candy just as one wishes. An adult has the means and opportunity to purchase candy, if not the same motive as a child. The natural transactional solution is for children to borrow candy from adults and then to repay their candy debt as adults to the next generation of children. Hey, it works (worked?) for Social Security and Medicare! And, refreshingly, in the case of Halloween, the intergenerational transfer is tilted toward the younger generation rather than greedy geezers.

So... off to CVS to pay my intergenerational debt! [Ben H.: 10/30/05 11:45]
 
   
America Report

As I mentioned, I'm spending the week in America, where I grew up. Most things have remained the same. The trick-or-treating thing, on the other hand, has gotten out of control. Now all the malls (which have increased in number and luxuriousness!) have a trick-or-treat day in the week leading up to Halloween, so if your parents indulge you, you can have a weeklong candy orgy. I took my friends' kid (also named Ben) to one such event yesterday. Couldn't believe how many kids were there. It was like they were trucking them in from neighboring states, or perhaps Louisiana.

Michigan is actually a very nice place to be right now, since the leaves have turned and started to fall. When I remarked on this to my dad, he replied, "Yes, we call this 'the good week'." The six-month winter should start in a week or two.
[Doug: 10/28/05 09:37]
 
 
Freedom House: A Crack House?

At first I thought those Freedom House do-gooders were smoking crack. Venezuela more free than Estonia? But then I read the legend and saw that the freedom score represented an average between 1981 and 1998. I wonder how changes in freedom score between the beginning and end of the sample period correlate to changes in happiness. [Ben H.: 10/27/05 13:52]
 
 
Happiness: State Censorship, or 419 scams?

Why are Chinese people so happy?

Maybe the real question is why Nigerians are such an outlier?

That chop your dollar guy seems like he's having a good time...
[Ben A.: 10/27/05 11:54]
   
 
The Acme of Journalism

Anyone remember when Spy magazine called phone sex lines and asked questions about Miltong Friedman? Quoting from memory:

Spy: Do you endorse Milton Friedman's thesis that economic liberty inevitably produces political liberty?
Phone Sex Girl: Tell me more about this Milton Friedman, he makes me hot


Well Radar Magazine just went one better. [Ben A.: 10/26/05 18:14]
   
 
Globetrotting

I don't think I've mentioned here my visit to Singapore a month back.The trip was mainly notable for the Walter Kirn-ish experience of taking the world's longest direct flight (Newark-Singapore): 19 hours. To take two such flights in order to spend 2.5 days in residence, well, it isn't leisure travel. I saw little of the island except the massive state Biotechnology facility.

And I resisted the impulse to show up at John and Belle's door to demand one of those 17 ingredient concotions she's always listing as "a trivial recipie for octopus flan" or some such. Maybe next time. [Ben A.: 10/26/05 03:32]
   
 
Back In New York... Alas

Finally made it back from the biz trip, just in time to experience dropping temperatures and the remnants of a hurricane. Delightful. Once again, I got a solid block of glorious, sunny days in London. As a rational Bayesian, I must report that my data set indicates an 85% probability that "miserable London weather" is a trope used by the English to engender sympathy, or perhaps as an excuse to wear lots of Burberry.

I also had a couple of days in Istanbul, a little business and a little pleasure, successful on both counts. This is my fourth visit in the past 18 months. Now, anybody who reads thebandarlog will have observed my intense suspicion of things Islamic. Though the Turkish elite would dispute that the label Islamic should apply to their country, even heavy Kemalist indoctrination cannot deny the country's Islamic cultural roots. Yet despite my preconceptions, I have found myself consistently impressed with Istanbul and those residents with whom I've had dealings. The physical infrastructure compares well to developed Europe and is miles ahead of that of Latin American cities. Doing business in emerging markets consists mainly of enduring feeble, patronizing attempts by inferior intellects to swindle you; listening to pitches full of self-contradiction that wilt under the most gentle cross-examination; trying to negotiate with people who are too lazy to even bother to hide their bad faith. In comparison, Turkish managers have struck me as smart, well-trained, commercially-minded and refreshingly straightforward. That the European voting public will accept without complaint as their co-unionists the pack of greasy thieves that goes under the name "Romania" and yet rebel at the notion of Turkish accession reflects poorly on the EU citizenry's judgment.

I decided to stay an extra couple of days after my business meetings. On one of those days I hired a guide to show me some of the historical sites. Since it was Ramadan, places like the Sultanahmet Mosque were more full of locals that usual. Among the crowds, most of the women were wearing headscarves. The reaction of my guide, an educated Turk and unexceptional Kemalist, demonstrated to me that the cultural cringe is not a posture unique to the American left. I did not so much as remark upon the sea of headscarves. The guide could seemingly speak of little else. "There usually aren't so many women dressed like that," he apologized. "It must be because it is Ramadan." When we crossed a street filled with buses surrounded by headscarf-wearing women, he seemed visibly relieved. "You see," he crowed, "these are mostly peasants, they take buses into Istanbul for Ramadan. People from Istanbul don't dress that way." He complained that it was scenes like these that will keep the EU from embracing Turkey. Perhaps that's the truth as regards the average European. The irony is that in order court the votes of Europeans appalled by the potential accession of a country with lots of headscarf-wearers, European politicians threaten to halt negotiations with Turkey because the government oppresses women who choose to don the hijab. And the EU does so at the very same time as France imposes restriction on headscarves in school that are, if anything, more draconian that Turkey's... [Ben H.: 10/25/05 21:04]
 
 
I give the collection of one-star reviews.... FIVE STARS!! [Ben H.: 10/25/05 20:29]
 
 
One Star Amazon Reviews of Classic Books

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)

Author: Harper Lee

“I don’t see why this book is so fabulous. I would give it a zero. I find no point in writing a book about segregation, there’s no way of making it into an enjoyable book. And yes I am totally against segregation.”

Much more.
[Ben A.: 10/25/05 18:08]
   
 
Technology Works

Finally, a rigorously scientific and accurate online test.



[Ben A.: 10/25/05 17:34]
   
     
   
I'm going to Michigan for a week, starting tomorrow (contrary to an Evite acceptance which I haven't bothered to switch yet ... Dao points out that Ben H is invited to that party too, and I encourage him to go; Dao will be there too -- morover "evited" is a valid scrabble word).

I wanted to point out one of my favorite of Jesus's phrases: "Verily I say unto you, they have their reward." He says it three times in Matthew 6, in the Sermon on the Mount, of people who do their religious activities ostentatiously, so as to win the respect of their communities. He then goes on to say, e.g., "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret ...". I love it that Jesus doesn't use rhetorical overkill against the hypocrites and the ostentatiously pious. He doesn't say that the advantages they win are "nonexistent", or that they are only "seeming" advantages that are truly hurt them. He acknowledges the advantages straightforwardly -- but with a single phrase who very brevity stresses how limited they are. (Compared to "treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt".)

I can imagine using this phrase a lot. People I see working themselves sick in order to further their career: "Verily, they have their reward." Stern academics who pride themselves on their renunciation of modern American frivolities: "Verily, they have their reward." Vain couples scouring last weekend's Times Magazine wedding supplement looking to find what expensive wedding frivolities have become de rigueuer: "Verily, they have their reward." [Doug: 10/24/05 23:19]
 
     
 
"The Olsen Twins of the White Nationalist Movement"

The world is a scary place. [Ben A.: 10/22/05 12:06]
   
 
Free Speech: How I Hate It

Kinsely nails it. [Ben A.: 10/21/05 15:57]
   
     
   
Ah, Ben, that's just the sort of banality we'd expect an American to quote. You must learn from the French that dysfunctional morosity = depth. [Doug: 10/21/05 08:58]
 
     
 
A Point Largely Missing From Modern Fiction

"The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet be fully alive."

--George Orwell

[Ben A.: 10/20/05 12:43]
   
 
Pitcher Volatility Analysis

One measure often used as a simple ‘count’ statistic in pitching assessment is the quality start, defined as a starting pitching appearance in which the pitcher goes at least three innings and gives up no more than three runs. Although the limit case corresponds to an unspectacular ERA of 4.50, even that performance gives the average offensive team a fighting chance to win the game.

A pitcher’s quality start percentage (defined as [# quality starts]/{# of total starts] gives a rough and ready measure of volatility. Over the past ten years, league quality start percentage has ranged from 42-48%. Good pitchers will average a quality start two out of every three outings, and a quality start percentage exceeding 80% indicates an exceptionally strong season.

One would expect there to be a fairly good correlation between earned run average and QS%. By inspection, this appears to be correct. What one would like to find are pitchers who consistently post more/fewer quality starts than their ERA would predict.* As Ben H suggests below, lack of volatility would be a highly desirable quality for teams like the Yankees, which post a potent offense.

* Both these measures, unfortunately, are going to look volatile year-to-year compared to strikeouts/innings pitched, or even hits+walks/innings pitched. [Ben A.: 10/20/05 01:28]
   
 
Inflation Scare!!

PPI clocks in at 1.9% m-o-m. Not to worry, though: inflation excluding the prices of things that have become more expensive is quite subdued! [Ben H.: 10/18/05 13:15]
 
 
DHS Secretary Quijote

Actually deport illegal aliens? Let me know how that works out for you. [Ben H.: 10/18/05 13:13]
 
   
Yeah, we're in Paris now, where I'm trying to deal with the "dossier immobilier", i.e. finding an apartment to rent or buy. I won't bore you with the details but suffice it to say that the purchase-price/rent ratio is just as out of whack here as in New York. An apartment that costs $500K euros would rent for about $15K per year (from what I can tell), giving a ratio of about 33. I believe that a ratio of 20 is considered "normal" globally speaking. We'd buy anyway if we believed that the real estate market's trajectory was (as Ben A's family puts it) "to infinity, and beyond!" But I suspect on the contrary that any purchase by us would instantly trigger a crash.

Nothing else to report really, given that Paris never changes. [Doug: 10/17/05 08:25]
 
 
Outta Town

I'm here in London for most of the week (Turkey later). As usual, the sky is blue and the sun is shining. Each visit leads me (as a rational Bayesian) to give further credence to my theory that the trope of "dreary London weather" is a total fabrication.

Doug, is it the case that for the first time in a while, thebandarlog is majority European? [Ben H.: 10/17/05 05:51]
 
 
All Hail Roger Clemens...

Half-pitcher and half-god. Indeed, the blow that unseated the Yankee dynasty was Clemens' decision to "retire." That he eventually took Pettite with him to Houston was just the cherry on the sundae. Clemens is another guy who gives the lie to the idea of the statistical insigificance of "clutch performance."

Speaking of baseball statistics, I want to revive the discussion about adding a stochastic dimension to baseball statistics. It seems to me that one of the most important aspects of pitching -- an aspect that doesn't show up in the "simple average" statistics -- is consistency. Take Jose Contreras. As a Yankee, from time to time he pitched spectacular games, putting on display the dirty stuff that had won his Cuban reputation; but other times, he would come out to the mound and promptly implode. What's turned him into a sterling asset for the White Sox is his newfound consistency. One can say with much more confidence that on any given outing it's Contreras the ace who is going to show up. For the Yankees, the importance of consistency should be greater than for the average team. SInce the Yankees bring the field an offensive juggernaut, a shut-out outing doesn't add much value over a 3-run showing. A pitcher who can very consistently deliver 3-run, 7-8 inning outings will prove more valuable than a guy with a 3.00 ERA who alternately pitches 1-run complete games and combusts and gives up a ton of runs in four or five innings. What statistics measure would best capture consistency, do you think? Perhaps something like, per-outing ERA volatility (standard deviation of per-outing ERA; or difference between ERA and ERA in the 75th percentile outing?). One problem here is that the measure seems like it would be distorted for pitchers with shorter average outings. Shorting outings should lead to higher measured volatility for pitchers with the same "true" consistency. Maybe we look at volatility of measures that are less "lumpy" than ERA, for example volatility of per-outing K/BB ratio or balls/strikes ratio?

Another idea suggests itself based on work my team has done on currency forecasting. Behavior of currency returns tends to be multi-modal. Currencies can behave a certain way (say, range-bound, low volatility) for long stretches, but this behavior may be punctuated by periods of very distinct behavior (high volatility, trending). One way we model this is via regime-shifting models, such as a Markov-switching model. FOr a given data series, the model tells you what the probability is that you are in each regime and transition probabilities. Could this not be applied to pitching statistics? A "consistent" pitcher is one for whom the transition probability from "ace" regime to "combustion artist" regime is low, for instance. In addition, if one could fit a switching model for a given pitcher, it could be a useful tool in deciding when to pull him from the game. [Ben H.: 10/16/05 11:34]
 
 
Roger Clemens!

The Rocket lacked his A game, but managed to keep the National League's number one lineup in check long enough for the Astros to take game three. If he were still a Yankee, NY would still be playing. [Ben A.: 10/16/05 01:29]
   
 
Mohammed El-Erian!

As a counterpoint to all our blog's carping about bad choices on the part of the Nobel Committee's, I want to point out an excellent choice by the committee charged with finding a new CEO for Harvard Management Company. This morning the University announced that it has appointed my fellow-EM investor and friend Mohammed El-Erian to the post. It's a superb choice. Mohammed is one of the savviest investors in EM, a strong academic economist, and an experienced manager. And with regard to perhaps the greatest challenge that an HMC head faces, namely fending off charges from envious paleo-hippy alums that he is overpaid, he is uniquely well-qualified. That Mohammed will be paid less than his market value is not, as was the case with Jack Meyer, a (well-founded) conjecture, but a hard fact (assuming he gets paid like Meyer). His pay at Harvard will come out substantially below what he already earns at PIMCO. In addition, he may be better positioned to deflect that sort of criticism because of who he is -- half-Egyptian, half-French, with an impeccable academic pedigree; as opposed to Meyer, who could never shake off a starchy, WASP-plutocrat old-boy image. [Ben H.: 10/14/05 17:09]
 
 
Harold Pinter?!

The Nobel Prize winner? Honestly? I say this as someone with a soft spot for Pinter. His 'The Homecoming' contains one of my all time favorite characters, the ineffectual academic philosopher Teddy:

Lenny: Do you detect a certain logical incoherence in the central affirmations of Christian theism?
Teddy: That question does not fall within my province
Lenny: Well, look at it this way ... you don't mind my asking you some questions, do you ?
Teddy: If they're within my province.

This snatch of dialog, as well as the scene in which Teddy steals his brother's "specially made" cheese roll, stayed with me throughout life.

[Ben A.: 10/14/05 14:00]
   
 
The Yankees: Still a Juggernaut

I am with you, Ben H. There is little wrong with the New York Yankees, and any defects (defense, 2B, CF) would be rendered inconsequential by the addition of one solid starting pitcher. The lineup, as you know, is magnificent. The Red Sox on base percentage assault led to marginally more runs this year, but the 1-5 of Jeter, Rodriguez, Giambi, Sheffield, and Matsui is unparralled in recent memory (1993 bluejays?). The Yankees will remain dominant on the offensive side of the ball. If Cashman can just derive 200 strong innings from the Brown/Bernie Willaims peace dividend, or if, heaven forbid, Pavano rounds back into form, the Bombers could easily recapture the dominance of the late 90s super-teams. I would expect the Yankees to concentrate efforts on A.J. Burnett, Jarod Washburn and the like. I also hear that Jeff Weaver may be available.

p.s. You may be interested to know that James himself has had second thoughts about clutch hitting. I also tend to be a clutch skeptic, but my reason quails when faced with Derek Jeter in a pressure situation. Now that guy is clutch. [Ben A.: 10/11/05 22:24]
   
 
A-Rod: A Dave Winfield for the 21st Century

Back in the early 80s, Steibrenner's megabucks slugging solution wore #31. Dave Winfield came to the Yankees on a fat 10-year contract. He managed to rack up solid regular season numbers. However, in the 1981 World Series, he went 1-for-17 and earned the sobriquet "Mr. May" from Steinbrenner. I have vivid memories of my grandfather waving his hand and making a sour face at one of Winfield's all to frequent inning-ending double-play balls. To Grandpa, Winfield was "that bum" and no amount of statistical evidence could erase his perception that Winfield was indeed a late-season choke artist.

As I watched the ALDS series this year, I had many occasions to recall my grandfather's anti-Winfield bile as I watched A-Rod recapitulate the Winfield story; as a bonus, when I attended Saturday's game, I got to see my father recapitulate my grandfather's role as critic. 25 years later, another member of the clan was making the dismissive wave and the pickle-face, denouncing another long-term contract choke-artist as a bum.

A-Rod had a great season, perhaps one of the greatest seasons by a third-baseman in recent history -- and this from a guy who has only been playing the position 2 years. But still, no one can deny that he put in a pitiful performance in the post-season. I've read my Bill James and I do a certain amount of statistical analysis for a living, so I know very well the empirical arguments against the reality of "clutchness." But I am also my father's son, who tends to wave his hand and make a pickle-face to express disgust. And so, Ben, I grant you: A-Rod is a bum!

That said, he's ours, with a contract nobody else can afford and with numbers that not even Steinbrenner will dismiss. Therefore, there is no use dwelling on him. He'll spend next year exactly where he spent this one. However, I wonder, Ben, what you think the Yankees ought to do in the off-season. The city dailies are abuzz with talk about a major overhaul -- starting with Cashman, the architect of the long -- and maybe, now, geriatric -- Yankee boom of the last decade. The way I look at it, the team does not need a major overhaul. At most positions, the team is quite solid, if on the whole defensively weak. We have a screaming need for a center-fielder (maybe New York can continue its tradition of poaching Boston heros and grab Johnny Damon?) and arguably we also need a legitimate two-way threat first baseman (moving SteroidBoy to DH). With Bernie William's and Kevin Brown's contracts shed, Steinbrenner should have ample dough to fill these holes. The Yankee middle-relief has proved dreadful, but if all the starting pitching comes back healthy next year, the Yankees have a surfeit of talent, some of which could be moved to the bullpen. Thoughts? [Ben H.: 10/11/05 21:12]
 
 
Fenway

It was an ugly scene at Fenway this Friday, but at least we bested the White Sox in inventive mocking chants. The best target of the night was the biblical literalism of White Sox outfielder Carl dinosaur bones were created by man" Everett. During the season, I had heard various sing-song chants (Stega-saurus), but I was caught unprepared when a guy in the row below stood up and declaimed:

Boom boom acka-lacka lacka boom
Boom boom acka-lacka boom boom
Open the door
get on the floor
everybody rock the dinosaur!


Good times.

And by the way Ben H, how about Mr. Clutch himself, Alex Rodriguez?

[Ben A.: 10/11/05 20:42]
   
     
   
The other thing is that we saw, at the wedding, a Harvard acquaintance who, against all odds, actually got a job teaching in a philosophy department. At Harvard, no less. How did he beat the odds? I don't know for sure, but it may be relevant that he looks, talks, and acts almost exactly like Warren Goldfarb, a Harvard philosophy professor of long standing (I believe he was once the department chair). I was going to recommend the mimetic approach to an unemployed Ph.D. of my acquaintance, but was told that he had already tried this. [Doug: 10/11/05 19:29]
 
   
This was a two-wedding weekend for us. One of them entailed driving three hours in pouring rain up to Williamstown, Mass. and then driving three hours back in even heavier rain at night. That wedding was nice in itself except that the ground in the reception tent was totally soaked, so that people like Dao with open-toed shoes got their feet covered with cold muddy water went they went to the buffet line. They had a highly skilled Dixieland jazz band in full Mardi Gras regalia. I wonder if they got a deal hiring refugees from New Orleans.
[Doug: 10/11/05 00:28]
 
 
Thanks for the heads-up, Ben. The reviews had led me to consider seeing that film, but I did so with more than a hint of trepidation. I have never failed to find a Cronenberg film deliberately creepy and weird. Of course, that's probably precisely why the high-brow critics praise his work. Film School Rule #1: Creepy = Deep. [Ben H.: 10/10/05 10:59]
 
 
Avoid At All Costs

The new Cronenberg film History of Violence.

What does it say that 90% of film reviewers liked, and in the case of worthies like David Edelstein and Roger Ebert, adored, this wreck? Condorcet's jury theorem tells me that it is I who am the crazy one. [Ben A.: 10/10/05 02:15]
   
 
Clearly, this is Michael Brown's fault. [Ben H.: 10/9/05 17:34]
 
 
Thank You, Jimmy Carter

From one Nobel Laureate to another: Jimmy Carter and his center ratified Chavez's fraud-filled recall referendum victory, and now, firmly ensconced in Miraflores El Comandante will soon, it seems, be dealing with this year's Nobelist, Mohammed ElBaradei. Argentine daily Clarin reveals today that Chavez has initiated discussions with the Argentine government for the purchase of a nuclear reactor. For peaceful purposes, of course. Because countries with billions of barrels of untapped petroleum reserves have ample reason to start mucking around with nuclear power stations. The Kirchner regime reportedly finds itself divided about the wisdom of this frankly insane request. The President and the Planning Ministry (the foci of nationalist bluster within the Administration) support selling the technology to Chavez, while the Economy Ministry and the External Relations Ministry (departments possessed of what passes for rationality among Peronist hacks) oppose it. When Roberto Lavagna and Rafael Bielsa count as voices of reason, you know it isn't a good situation.

Pat Robertson was wrong. He should have advocated for bumping off Kirchner, too.

Seriously, though, the Bush Administration has left creditors high-and-dry in the Argentine default on the grounds that the U.S. cannot jeopardize its relations with Argentina at this juncture. Why? The U.S. wants to isolate Chavez, who in his turn is trying to use his oil wealth to buy influence among his neighbors (see Petrocaribe accord whereby Venezuela will provide cheap oil to Carribbean nations, PDVSA's plans to build a refinery in Uruguay, and Fonden actual and planned purchases of debt at below-market interest rates from Argentina and Ecuador). If we can't even rely on Argentina to reject out of hand the sale of nuclear technology to the Monkey of Caracas then clearly the coddling strategy is not delivering results. Time for a rethink? [Ben H.: 10/9/05 14:31]
 
 
Tolerance or Surrender?

A local council in the UK banned from its office any pictures or reproduction of pigs (including Piglet from Winnie the Pooh) in response to a Muslim's complaint that he found such imagery offensive. Mark Steyn tries to instruct obtuse multicultis on the difference between tolerance and self-abasement.

Perhaps the council ought to consider whether it makes more sense to ban real-live Islamic swine rather than pictures of cartoon pigs. As Martha Stewart might say: "Islamocrazy Britons, you just don't fit in." [Ben H.: 10/8/05 12:59]
 
 
Another Achiever Joins the Humbletonians

Mohammded ElBaradei, you've just won the Nobel Peace Prize! How do you feel?

Humbled!

Hey, I call that progress. Usually you do anything to an Arab, and he's "humiliated." [Ben H.: 10/7/05 14:37]
 
   
Another Great New Yorker Humor Piece

I don't know if I linked to this before or not ... when Carl V mentioned the "Tonight's Specials" vignette, it reminded me of something but I couldn't remember what. Now I remember that it's another particularly good "Shouts and Murmurs" entry that's also about New York City restaurants. The Google link doesn't work (looks like it may be behind a subscriber-only curtain, or maybe they want you to drop $100 on the complete CD-ROM.) Luckily, Google cached it, and I reproduce it here. It's by Noah Baumbach. It's Called "The Zagat History of My Last Relationship."


AASE'S Bring a "first date" to this "postage stamp"-size bistro. Tables are so close you're practically "sitting in the laps" of the couple next to you, but the lush décor is "the color of love." Discuss your respective "dysfunctional families" and tell her one of your "fail-safe" stories about your father's "cheapness" and you're certain to "get a laugh." After the "to die for" soufflés, expect a good-night kiss, but don't push for more, because if you play your cards right there's a second date "right around the corner."

BRASSERIE PENELOPE "Ambience and then some" at this Jamaican-Norwegian hybrid. Service might be a "tad cool," but the warmth you feel when you gaze into her baby blues will more than compensate for it. Conversation is "spicier than the jerk chicken," and before you know it you'll be back at her one-bedroom in the East Village, quite possibly "getting lucky."

THE CHICK & HEN Perfect for breakfast "after sleeping together," with "killer coffee" that will "help cure your seven-beer/three-aquavit hangover." Not that you need it—your "amplified high spirits" after having had sex for the first time in "eight months" should do the trick.

DESARCINA'S So what if she thought the movie was "pretentious and contrived" and you felt it was a "masterpiece" and are dying to inform her that "she doesn't know what she's talking about"? Remember, you were looking for a woman who wouldn't "yes" you all the time. And after one bite of chef Leonard Desarcina's "duck manqué" and a sip of the "generous" gin Margaritas you'll start to see that she might have a point.

GORDY'S Don't be ashamed if you don't know what wine to order with your seared minnow; the "incredibly knowledgeable" waiters will be more than pleased to assist. But if she makes fun of "the way you never make eye contact with people," you might turn "snappish" and end up having your first "serious fight," one where feelings are "hurt."

PANCHO MAO "Bring your wallet," say admirers of Louis Grenouille's pan-Asian-Mexican-style fare, because it's "so expensive you'll start to wonder why she hasn't yet picked up a tab." The "celeb meter is high," and "Peter Jennings" at the table next to yours might spark an "inane political argument" where you find yourself "irrationally defending Enron" and finally saying aloud, "You don't know what you're talking about!" Don't let her "stuff herself," as she might use that as an excuse to go to sleep "without doing it."

RIGMAROLE At this Wall Street old boys' club, don't be surprised if you run into one of her "ex-boyfriends" who works in "finance." Be prepared for his "power play," when he sends over a pitcher of "the freshest-tasting sangria this side of Barcelona," prompting her to visit his table for "ten minutes" and to come back "laughing" and suddenly critical of your "cravat." The room is "snug," to say the least, and it's not the best place to say, full voice, "What the fuck were you thinking dating him?" But don't overlook the "best paella in town" and a din "so loud" you won't notice that neither of you is saying anything.

TATI Prices so "steep" you might feel you made a serious "career gaffe" by taking the "high road" and being an academic rather than "selling out" like "every other asshole she's gone out with." The "plush seats" come in handy if she's forty-five minutes late and arrives looking a little "preoccupied" and wearing "a sly smile."

VANDERWEI'S Be careful not to combine "four dry sakes" with your "creeping feeling of insecurity and dread," or you might find yourself saying, "Wipe that damn grin off your face!" The bathrooms are "big and glamorous," so you won't mind spending an hour with your cheek pressed against the "cool tiled floor" after she "walks out." And the hip East Village location can't be beat, since her apartment is "within walking distance," which makes it very convenient if you should choose to "lean on her buzzer for an hour" until she calls "the cops."

ZACHARIA AND SONS & CO. This "out of the way," "dirt cheap," "near impossible to find," "innocuous" diner is ideal for "eating solo" and insuring that you "won't run into your ex, who has gone back to the bond trader." The "mediocre at best" burgers and "soggy fries" will make you wish you "never existed" and wonder why you're so "frustrated with your life" and unable to sustain a "normal," "healthy" "relationship."
[Doug: 10/7/05 12:59]
 
 
A Sensible Choice

The Nobel Peace Price has been awarded to IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei, a man who deserves recognition for the cool capitalization of his name, if nothing else. At first, I thought the Nobel committee had committed yet another travesty. Then it occurred to me that by the committee's own weird standards, ElBaradei constitutes an excellent choice. He fits well with previous honorees. Jimmy Carter makes sure crazy tyrants can stay in office; ElBaradei makes sure they can keep their atomic weapons programs. [Ben H.: 10/7/05 08:04]
 
 
Good Luck Catching a Cab Tonight...

On the other hand, because of this, I have a shot of getting a seat on the 4-Train ride home. [Ben H.: 10/6/05 18:38]
 
 
The Blogosphere Rises to the Occasion Magnificently

Here and here. [Ben A.: 10/5/05 22:38]
   
 
And His Arctic Redoubt Will be the "Fortress of Amphetamines"/b>

Nic Cage named his son Kal-El. [Ben A.: 10/5/05 22:11]
   
 
People Respond To Incentives

Now that high gasoline prices have proved more than a transient condition,SUV sales have begun to slide. People respond to incentives. No directives from Washington, no fleet fuel efficiency standards, no cultural shifts accomplished this; rather, a very simple increase in the price of gas was all it took. The New York Times professes itself amazed, but then you would expect socialists to find the textbook operation of the price mechanism surprising. It's not in their textbooks.

I hope the administation will take advantage of this (to steal an ugly Timesian phrase) "teachable moment" to offer a sensible proposal on energy conservation. In view of the demonstrated efficacy of the price mechanism, the government sharply hikes gasoline taxes once the current refinery outages clear up; and in exchange, the lefties allow the administration to scrap CAFE standards and most of the other "command economy" mechanisms aimed at curbing gasoline consumption. [Ben H.: 10/4/05 06:56]
 
 
Harriet Miers

Not surprisingly, given where my firm is headquartered, a few of the partners have had dealings with her. The verdict: she is very smart, but even so, they have something of a hard time envisioning her on the Supreme Court. [Ben H.: 10/3/05 18:27]
 
   
This Will ... Uh, Impale That With a Shuriken of Foie Gras?

Oh, Come On!

Link via Curbed. [Doug: 10/3/05 08:09]
 
   
The Cinema of Mortification

Rented the first season of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" (yes, Ben, we finished watching all ten episodes). Recommended. For those who can stand scenes of extreme awkwardness and embarrassment. [Doug: 10/1/05 21:27]
 
   
Fine Dining in NYC

Carl V points out that tonight's specials are surprisingly good (for a New Yorker humor piece).
[Doug: 9/29/05 14:20]
 
 
More Color From D.C>

I had a meeting with the governor and deputy governor of the central bank of a southern African country. In order to avoid having to pass through the security cordon around the IMF/WB buildings, we agreed to meet in the lobby of their hotel. Commendably, they had lodged themselves not at the sort of posh property usually frequented by jet-setting bureaucrats, but rather at the Courtyard Marriott in Dupont Circle. The most pressing question we had in store for these central bankers had to do with how the bank would manage monetary and exchange rate policy in light of the drought-related food shortage in their country. It was therefore with surprise that we remarked upon the arrival of our two interlocutors, each of whom weighed at least 350 pounds. I can sincerely suggest to the World Food Program that its functionaries first step in country ought to be to close down the central bank's cafeteria. The many tourist families with whom we shared the Muzak-suffused lobby that served as our conference room must surely have wondered what a was going on at our table, consisting of two stereotypical New York finance suits and 700 pounds of African monetary authority. [Ben H.: 9/27/05 21:06]
 
 
That last title is going to bring hits to the blog like we've never seen! [Ben A.: 9/26/05 20:26]
   
 
Hilton Head

I'm hoping that in between the wedding and the reading, you had time for a meditation on love, loss, and memory. [Ben H.: 9/26/05 10:07]
 
   
Back From Hilton Head

I was down South too this weekend, attending my cousin Kim's wedding. The bride was luminous. In between events I read a radiant novel. Actually it was an Inspecteur Maigret novel and therefore surpassingly dark, but you know what I mean.

[Doug: 9/26/05 09:38]
 
 
Back from D.C.

Just back from D.C., where i attended the IMF/WB annual meetings. As usual, protesters were on hand, but for once they were not there to harangue participants. Instead, this year's lot of the self-righteous and scruffy were marching against the Iraq War (and, for some, against American more generally). I saw very few protestors in my zipping about D.C., though I did glimpse AL Sharpton sitting by the window of a fast-food Chinese restaurant. However, I did not entirely escape the madness. I was awakened this morning at around 7am by the sound of drums, whistles and megafone-distorted human voices. A group of protesters had set up shop right behind my hotel and below my window. Now, I'll own that there is room to disagree about the wisdom of America's actions in the Middle East. But what I cannot bring myself to understand is what kind of people start a protest at 7am on a Sunday, on an empty, lightly-trafficked side street that faces the back of several business hotels. [Ben H.: 9/25/05 22:11]
 
 
A Response to A Reader's Response

Josh's response reminded me of a critical essay I read a long time ago. After wracking my brain, I remembered that Doris Lessing had written it and, thanks to the internet, it took me no more than 2 minutes to track it down. Lessing echoes X's how/why distinction. Books written with an explicitly didactic purpose, she says, come from a different part of the writer's mind than do authentic works of fiction, in her view a part not capable of producing interesting fiction.

Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is "about" something or other. I wrote a story, The Fifth Child, which was at once pigeonholed as being "about" the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism, and so on. A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she even sat down said, "Of course The Fifth Child is about AIDS." An effective conversation-stopper, I do assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, "Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem, I would have written a pamphlet," you tend to get baffled stares, such an unfamiliar thought has it become. That a work of the imagination has to be "really" about some problem, is, again, an heir of socialist realism, of the infamous Zhdanov. To write a story for the sake of storytelling will not do; it is frivolous, not to say reactionary. Whole literary departments in a thousand universities are in the grip of this way of thinking, and yet the history of storytelling, of literature, tells us that there has never been a story that does not illuminate human experience in one way or another. The demand that stories must be "about" something is Communist thinking and, further back, comes from religious thinking, with its desire for improving books as simpleminded as the messages on samplers. "Little birds in their nests agree." "Good children must, good children ought, do what they are told, do what they are taught." I found that on a wall in a hotel in Wales.
[Ben H.: 9/22/05 15:34]
 
   
A Reader's Response to My Take On Indecision

[Josh S. writes:]

My main problem is that you seem to base your decision of whether the book is of merit on whether the roadmap for life/spiritual breakthrough that Kunkel's main character reaches holds water. When (obviously) it doesn't, you decide the book isn't all that good. To me this doesn't seem the right way to judge fiction. Tolstoy, for example, in War and Peace and Anna K, was trying to figure out an overarching philosophy, but the merit of those books is not whether T's philosophy worked (it doesn't). Eggers too is always trying to figure things out. In fact, most authors are, that's why they set out to write their books -- to come to some deeper understanding. However, I don't think that the main judgment of fiction can be whether they reach that point. The value of Kerouac's writing (if it still has any) is not its spiritual wisdom. Even someone like Ayn Rand, who wrote straight philosophical fiction is read in colleges today not because her philosophy "works" but because she incites discussion.

Fiction is about the how, not the why. The why is best left, I think, for spiritual practice. If you judge fiction by the why, Thich Nhat Hanh's novels (he wrote a couple) should be universally acclaimed as some of the greatest ever. But no one reads them anymore because they don't work as novels.

You could make a point that Kunkel deserves to be held to this standard of judgment because the book aspires to be about why. Again, I don't see how the value of the book is in whether it achieves this aim. A good comparison is the book Homeland by Sam Lipsyte. It's very similar in that at the end of the book, kind of out of the blue, the main character pulls together and gives a long speech about the point at it all at a high school reunion (immediately followed by another character being killed with a 16th century mace, but that's off the topic). Thing is, Homeland's speech is the weakest part of the book just as Indecision's is. But Homeland is still a good work of art -- it is hysterical and insightful into a certain generation of young and confused. But it seems by the standards you judge Indecision by, the book wouldn't hold up because the speech is lame.

What novels should we read then? There are those that do coalesce a coherent and viable spiritual truth ([a mutual friend] mentions Infinite Jest here, I never finished it [but still would you read IJ for its answers for life, or for its language, wit, energy etc?]). Then there are books which throw up their hands and describe how the situation is not fixable, like Catch 22 or The Ginger Man (this is a great genre too).

One thing I respect about what Kunkel did (and I never met the man and have no interest in doing so, I'm betting he's a twit) is that he makes no bones about the fact that he's lived a sheltered and abundant life. He hasn't had to deal with much -- no deaths, disease, abuse, poverty. His parents may have divorced, that's about it. I respect him for having the balls to use this "self-absorbed and shallow" background for the main character, instead of trying to give his book more emotional weight with some kind of dramatic personal suffering. He starts where he is. I think what happens then is that Kunkel ends up hitting too close to home for a lot of people. [Doug: 9/22/05 09:32]
 
   
The "Intelligent Thermostat" Theory

What with another monster storm churning through the Gulf of Mexico, and the well-known correlation between higher temperatures and stronger hurricanes, I think the governing Bible Belt / Republican coalition needs some new ammunition in its fight to keep anyone from doing anything about global warming. I suggest the "Intelligent Thermostat" theory. Weather patterns are just so complex that no blind deterministic system can be guiding them. They must be managed by some Intelligent Thermostat wholly beyond our control! [Doug: 9/21/05 18:56]
 
 
4% Down, 96% to Go

The New York Times announces layoffs. While I feel bad for the individuals affected (assuming Paul Krugman is not among, as he richly deserves to be), I won't deny that I feel a certain satisfaction to see the Times floundering. Perhaps it should try dedicating itself to reporting the news rather than flattering the prejudices of coastal bobos. Most readers want their newspaper to serve as a window on the world, not a mirror. And don't even get me started on their harebrained "TimesSelect" product. I would pay money to have the times excise from their free edition the "select" bloviation of its columnists. [Ben H.: 9/20/05 21:10]
 
 
German Deadlock

Neither the right nor the left has managed to impose itself in the German election. How will the deadlock be solved? Burn down the Reichstag! You can't go wrong with a traditional response... [Ben H.: 9/19/05 10:39]
 
   
The Eternal Recurrence of McClintic Sphere

As I've mentioned to a few people including Ben H, it was with a slightly guilty conscience that I recently bought and read Indecision, a new novel by one of our near-contemporaries at Harvard. The guilt comes from my general principle that people ought not to focus, in their choice of reading material and of cultural products generally, on stuff about people exactly like them. Professional women should not restrict themselves to Bridget Jones clones, and listlessness-prone NYC-based Ivy Leaguers should not restrict themselves to books like this one. But everyone's entitled to a guilty pleasure now and again.

The book is okay, and for most of this blog's highly selective readership will yield plenty of that's-so-true moments. You will pretty much guess what the tone will be going in — i.e. the ironic but also post-ironic, overeducated but also affectedly colloquial tone characteristic of people our age. (This is the first book I've read that solves the perennial novelist's problem of finding new synonyms for "He said, '...'" by using "He was like, '...'".) Kunkel gives this tone a decent rendition that is often a little rushed, with metaphors and adjectives that are not quite right. I didn't highlight any examples as I read them since I didn't expect to write a review here, but opening to a random page will work fine: "I'd feel myself swoon and slip away into the world of information like a snowflake signing up for a blizzard." A less creative writer would have said "like a snowflake swirling into a blizzard"; Kunkel's anthopomorphization of the snowflake is a humorous way to punch up the metaphor, but on the other hand the metaphor doesn't really work, because it paints a hypothetical scene before the snowflake hurtles into the blizzard, whereas we ought to be seeing it at the moment of hurtling. It's a small point but there's one like it on just about every page, and as a result you shouldn't read this book if your looking for a stylistic masterpiece.

The content of the book is just as not-quite-inspiring as the form. Having read the NY Times' recent puffy piece on the magazines "The Believer" and "N+1", whose founding editor Kunkel is, I was interested to see whether their founders do have any potential to give some intellectual direction to our generation. But the life-decision that the protagonist (Dwight) of "Indecision" inevitably makes (presumably on behalf of our Generation) is really nothing but that "Keep cool, but care" dictum Pynchon put into the mouth of one of his own hipsters fifty years ago. Maybe I should set up the protagonist's problem more carefully before talking about his solution. One horn of the lifestyle dilemma (actually trilemma (triceratops?)) is the headlong meaningless pursuit of wealth and status, here incarnated mainly by Dwight's dad, but also by some of our contemporaries — I believe Dwight calls some of them "Republican shit-suckers" at one point. The second horn is dour asceticism, which shows up in this book in both Episcopalian and left-wing-academic varieties. The third horn is just gradually whiling away a life of aimless pleasures in a downtown New York apartment with a string of quasi-girlfriends. But however you taxonomize the grim options, the point is that America's truly unbelievable material wealth has not yielded many or perhaps any fulfilling life-plans for its youngsters. And so Dwight's puzzle is how to get out of the third aimless-New-York-pleasure rut without landing in either of the other ruts.

It will probably not surprise you when I say that Dwight's solution is not to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground. No, it's not really possible for anyone in this cynical-but-also-post-cynical cultural moment to suggest a radical Third (or Fourth) Way and be taken seriously. What one must suggest is more like a superposition of the three aforementioned ruts. (1) Get a job and make enough money to afford creme brulee after dinner; (2) vote for Democrats and pick a social cause to contribute to; (3) don't take anything too seriously and continue to maintain an apartment south of 23rd street. This is essentially the life-plan Dwight arrives at in the end. There is a danger — which in this book is ultimately realized, I think — that such a superposition of unfulfilling life-plans will fail to end up looking like a fulfilling transcendence of them. To make Dwight's decision seem like a transcendence, however approximately, Kunkel does a couple of things. First, he makes it clear that Dwight has looked really hard (made a "very rigid search"?) for something better than this mere superposition, so that his failure to find one feels like hard-won wisdom. Second, the very un-earnestness of his decision seems meant, paradoxically, to give it extra weight; all those disappointing 20th-century enthusiams were such a bummer that our ironic (but also post-ironic) semi-detachment will seem wise by comparison. It's essential to the book that Dwight give his new-worldview speech (at his high school reunion) while drunk. Setting this speech next to, say, the two-hundred-pager of John Galt when he commandeers the radio station and the nation sits rapt before their radios as he lays down his Zarathustran revelations (am I misremembering?) would be quite funny. Here is the core of Dwight's speech, which, depending on what you'd like to get out of the book, may save you the trouble of reading the whole thing.

But I mean to be brief. Life is brief. And youth briefer than life. Except for some people. Lots of people actually, especially in the third world, where lots of people die very young. For us, however, youth has been appallingly expanded, in our remarkable time, when there are more people alive on the planet today than have ever even existed before, and when therefore the things we do have a special new importance, and also, by the same token, each individual possesses a special new irrelevance, because of the same numbers — anyway, [can you imagine John Galt saying "anyway ..." in his speech?] for us, during this time, youth has expanded to dimensions apparently without historical precedent. And I would like, in passing, to thank our Formmate Elaine Weddleton, who could not be here today, because she is a labor organizer in D.C. and waging the good fight against people such as ourselves and particularly our unkillable parents. [...] Thank you [...] So all I mean to say is that youth, brief youth, long-lasting youth, is for contemplating choices with your ever-changing mind. And yet the time has surely come for choices to be made. And many of you have made them. I hope you've made the right ones. Which kind of I doubt in some cases you have. Some of you are probably demonstrating in your daily lives the dubious fitness to rule of America's ruling class. To me that sounds like bad work and no love. I see my notes here say WORK AND LOVE. Um, yeah, and I have found both of these in the woman here with me, Brigid Lerman, who is both a Belgian drug-company heiress and my fiancee [...] though she denies being either. Anyway, I have chosen to be her fiance, and a worker on the garden path of global justice. And this happened more or less at the same time I lost my hair. On my body. Just to come full circle. As you may have noticed that I did. Finally I guess the one single thing I would ask of you, as your Form Agent, in closing [...] I would ask that you all think of what change, analogous in happiness, and with a psychological concomitant, to losing your hair, if you really feel you're too hairy, might happen to you to make you satisfied with your decisions. Because it seems to me that we, in this room, for reasons of cruel and unusual socioeconomic conditions, have an especially big range of decisions we could make, and so there is a particular burden. So without further ado [...] I would only say, in overdue conclusion, that the weird thing about freedom to choose would seem to be that no one knows what to do with it unless they give it to others. Which I think was a large factor in the horrible confusion that until recently I selflessly took it upon myself to exemplify. Until the bobohuarzia, and the love, and the democratic socialism. [...] On behalf of which ideology I mean to say that only when other people have the same freedom which we have devoted ourselves to squandering — only then will we really finally know what we should have done with ours in the first place. So let us remain faithful to those privileged kids we were by seeking to honor and cancel our condition by making it general throughout the world.


The main thing I want to call out in this speech is its recapitulation of what, in my view, is the central cop-out of progressivism as a philosophy. Let's assume that by "freedom to choose" Dwight means, in those last sentences, the personal freedoms of contemporary America as well the incredible material wealth that makes those freedoms more than theoretical. The problem is that we haven't found anything fulfilling to do with those freedoms ("the horrible confusion that until recently I selflessly took it upon myself to exemplify"). Isn't it then a cop-out to dedicate one's life to furnishing other people with these freedoms? Once you have saved the third-worlders from want and ignorance and even from their dearth of cultural capital, won't they be ushered into exactly the same depressing anomie that you were in until you set about saving them? It a piece of arrant self-delusion — self-aware self-delusion, if there can be such a thing — to say that "only when other people have the same freedom which we have devoted ourselves to squandering — only then will we really finally know what we should have done with ours in the first place". Why will transmitting your anomie to others cure it in yourself? I fear that Dwight's drunkenness during this speech has another purpose, which is to befog the serious logical problems in his worldview. I think we're supposed to react this way: "Well, I'm sure that if he were sober he would probably patch up this logical flaw in his worldview, but the cool thing is that he has a good attitude and can have a beer and laugh at the paradoxes he's fallen into, unlike his dour leftist sister."

This is not, of course, to criticize progressivism restricted to the political realm. I'm all for spreading justice and wealth. It's just that it doesn't work as the fundamental philosophy of a person's life — not even, I suspect, when it is pursued in a New York bachelor pad with a well-stocked bar and a multi-ethnic stable of girlfriends.

[Doug: 9/18/05 16:54]
 
   
Ben H and I agreed, after watching the new film of "Everything is Illuminated", that the bizarre physical appearance of the main character spoiled a lot of it. I didn't even realize that the actor was the Elf from Lord of the Rings. I thought it was Gollum. [Doug: 9/17/05 11:48]
 
 
Strange Bedfellows

I never thought the day would come when I would cheer on an idea of Hugo Chavez's. Then again, UN week does tend to lead to a lot of absurdities. In his speech to the General Assembly, the Commandante railed against the U.S. and demanded that the UN move its headquarters out of the U.S. to an "international city outside the sovereignty of any one nation", preferably someplace in the developing world. Hear him, hear him! [Ben H.: 9/16/05 17:43]
 
 
Battle Royale

U.N. Week always makes me wish my firm had chosen an office further from the Waldorf Astoria. This hotel sits at the center of the vortex of madness created by the presence of so many world leaders. For example, this year, Falun Gong protesters have staked out their position directly in front of my office building. From there, they hope to have a chance to jeer Hu Jintao as he emerges from or returns to the hotel. The rest of the day is consumed with banging on drums and blowing whistles. What joy. This afternoon, we heard a tumult that surpassed the background din of street theater. From our window we saw the Falun Gong mob surround a dark-suited Chinese diplomat and his security detail. A struggle ensued for several minutes. At a certain point, red-shirted pro-Communist protesters arrived to confront the yellow-shirted Falun Gongers. Finally, the diplo's security detail was able to break a path through the Gongers. The commie peloton made it across the street... only to run into another confrontation, this time with a Free Tibet protest! Can we at long last get the UN out of New York?!! [Ben H.: 9/13/05 19:13]
 
 
You Have Got To Be Kidding

This too neatly confirms my prejudices (and the original source is not entirely disinterested), so I will take it with a grain of salt.

To the Muslim's offended by the "exclusionary" nature of Holocaust Remembrance Day, I offer a deal. You let us kill off 80% of the Muslims in Europe and we'll rename it the more "inclusive" Genocide Day. Whaddya say? [Ben H.: 9/12/05 20:40]
 
   
The Linear Caffeine-Italic Hypothesis

Every person is born with numerical constants α and β which are fixed by his physiology and do not change over his lifetime, such that the percentage of words that he italicizes when writing equals α + β(c), where c is his blood-caffeine level. [Doug: 9/10/05 13:12]
 
 
New Orleans-Is-A-Dump Meme Taking Off!

Jack Shafer makes a pithy case against rebuilding New Orleans. The analogy we've been using around here: lancing a boil.

The city had developed a seriously dysfunctional culture. Cultures are nearly impossible to change. One way to rescue people from a dysfunctional culture is to disperse them to healthy cultures, in numbers small enough that they assimilate to the culture of their new home rather than bring their old dysfunctional culture to a new place. [Ben H.: 9/9/05 14:45]
 
 
Murder Like a Good Muslim, Die Like a Good Jain

Detainees at Guantanamo making moral progress: came in as murderers, may go out as suicides. The response to their hunger strike ought to be three simple words: Be. My. Guest. [Ben H.: 9/9/05 06:15]
 
 
Charles Murray...

... call your office! [Ben H.: 9/8/05 20:43]
 
 
Neutral Law of General Applicability

Florida Court, in shocking outburst of good sense, rules that a Muslim applicant for driving license must agree to have her picture taken with face unveiled. Maybe we should figure out how to translate "Neutral law of general applicability" into Arabic; though I suspect its legal vocabulary is limited to names of sharp-edged instruments and verbs like "stone", "crush", and "amputate." [Ben H.: 9/8/05 13:49]
 
 
Gone

I doubt any drop in my posting frequency can be discerned by the naked eye, but over the next week expect even less than usual as I will be on vacation (Italy!).

Also, my friend Tim's library program really appears to be taking off. Tell everyone you know. [My apologies, Doug, for exposing you to this example of bibliophillia]. You can see here all the books he's 'borrowed' from me. [Ben A.: 9/8/05 10:19]
   
 
Apology Not Accepted

The United Nations has launched a "witty" advertising campaign in New York to apologize in advance for the disruption next week's GA Plenary will cause. This New Yorker does not accept. If an offender can apologize in advance, can he not also take measures to mitigate the offensive behavior? The UN's contrition apparently does not rise to the level of intensity that would induce the delegates to forego the opportunity to swan about Manhattan. Save your apologies for the crimes that are beyond redress: say, taking bribes and allowing Saddam to rake off in excess of $10bio.
[Ben H.: 9/8/05 07:37]
 
 
The Big Nothing

So true!! Here at work we often make the same joke when a coup sparks a rally in a country's sovereign debt. The deposed leader knows exactly how much his stewardship was deemed to be worth.

But in all seriousness, Doug, you raise an interesting question: how can we square the market's exuberant reaction -- a rally in stocks and a compression in credit spreads -- with the annihilation of a major American city? Like many paradoxes, this one goes straight back to Greenspan. Market participants have learned -- or believe they have learned -- his reaction function. Starting with the 1987 stock market crash, Greenspan has showed himself quick to meet any shock to confidence with substantial injections of liquidity. The market now anticipates his moves. It sees a crisis like New Orleans and forecasts that it portends an easing of monetary conditions. On the basis of that forecasts, it bids up the price of risky assets. But here is the paradox: if the market has come to equate disasters with rallies, then is a disaster really a negative confidence shock? If not, wouldn't Greenspan refrain from reacting to it? We'll have to wait for the next Fed meeting to find out... [Ben H.: 9/6/05 15:16]
 
   
The Big Nothing

What does it tell you about a city that its annihilation sets off a stock market rally? [Doug: 9/6/05 14:44]
 
 
Brooklyn: Boston's Stunt Double!

I noted here some time ago that Steven Spielberg had filmed the closing scenes of War of the Worlds, supposed to take place in Boston's South End, in Brooklyn. The location choice may have signaled the start of a lucrative sideline for my home borough. I noticed signs up on Montague Street last night advising residents to move their cars to make way for filming. The project impinging on the Heights' free parking: The Departed. According to IMDB, the Martin Scorsese film tells the story of moles with the police department and Irsh mafia in... Boston! [Ben H.: 9/6/05 07:06]
 
   
Could this just be a way to keep Muslims out of new housing developments? [Doug: 9/5/05 15:37]
 
     
 
Disturbing Doughnut Truths

Powdered Doughnut: 330 calories, 170 from fat.
Jelly Doughnut: 210 calories, 70 from fat.

Implication: The basic substance of a doughnut is more caloric than sugar-rich jelly goo (also, than yellow-custard goo)

A glazed cruller? Better not to know.
[Ben A.: 9/5/05 07:54]
   
     
   
Like Cures Like

... Or perhaps that should be amended to "fakes cure flakes" [Doug: 9/3/05 10:15]
 
 
Not A Great Performance, Part II

You've probably already seen this, namely that New Orleans had several hundred buses available, which, instead of being used for pre-storm evacuation or moved to high ground to preserve them for post-storm evacuation, were left in a lot to be destroyed by the waters. Let me beat the dead horse one more time: New Orleans suffers from Third World levels of incompetence. You can't lay the principal share of the blame with the feds. Perhaps DHS should have known that New Orleans municipal government would prove completely incapable of dealing with a major storm and therefore should have intervened earlier; though I can imagine some of the same people crying racism now would have done the same if the feds pre-empted Mayor Nagin. Certainly, the fact that Nagin was not (it seems) in contact with the National Hurricane Center until Saturday night could be considered a tip-off that someone else should have taken charge.

[Ben H.: 9/2/05 22:26]
 
 
Shameless Plug

Bernie has just finished writing an article, which she has posted to SSRN. She deals with the history and application of an approach to free exercise of religion jurisprudence that relies on the Equal Protection Clause and its attendant precedents. If you have interest in the ongoing constitutional debates about the interaction of the state and religion, have a look! [Ben H.: 9/2/05 15:40]
 
 
Not A Great Performance

I wouldn't put Bush at the top of the list. In the first instance, the city of New Orleans and State of Louisiana are supposed to take responsibility for disaster response. The feds (in the shape of FEMA) tend to sweep in after the fact. Nonetheless, after N.O. and Louisiana showed themselves incapable of dealing with the situation, I would have hoped for much more impressive federal capabilities to deal with the situation.

But I think your earlier post, Doug, gets to the real heart of the matter. The utter descent into mayhem we see in New Orleans had no precedent in 9/11 or the New York blackout. I think the real eye-opener is what a third-world dump New Orleans is, a case I made way back at the dawn of thebandarlog. Believe me, I know third-world cities! I've read that New Orlean's crime rate (before the flood) is something like an order of magnitude greater than New York's.

Here's another interesting fact. The median home price in New Orleans is $87,000. That won't buy a parking space in many American cities. It gives you an idea of the quality of the infrastructure in the Big Easy. Then again, maybe flimsy housing is a rational response to the likelihood of any given house being wiped out in a flood. Somebody calculated that based on historical frequency of high-powered hurricanes in the area and likely damage, the average New Orleans house had a 9% cumulative probability of serious damage over the life of a 30-year mortgage. That $87K number suggests to me that there really isn't much reason to try to rehabiliate a lot of the housing stock; rather, there is decent scope to knock down the remains and rebuild, possibly in a safer location. It would indeed by the height of folly (and not atypical of empty sloganeering of Homeland Security) for the feds to fund rebuilding in the same vulnerable spots out of some misguided sentimental desire to "show America's mettle." If we rebuild elsewhere, the Hurricane will have won!
[Ben H.: 9/1/05 21:05]
 
 
Never Too Soon!

I blame John Kerry, whose vacillation on flood prevention has emboldened our enemies. [Ben A.: 9/1/05 17:59]
   
     
   
Too soon for finger-pointing?

I don't feel like doing a sweep of the blogosphere but it seems like surprisingly few people are pointing out what a total failure our nation's disaster-relief forces have been. This was not like 9/11 -- there was least a day's notice -- and we have Bush's new Homeland Security department that was supposed to embiggen yet streamline our crisis capabilities. Ultimately the overall failure here would have to be Bush's fault, were it not an a priori truth that Bush does not make mistakes. [Doug: 9/1/05 17:45]
 
 
Looting

I was asking myself the same question, Doug. Let me venture a couple of possible answers:

1) You've heard my semi-serious spiel about New Orleans. This is a city the business model of which is much like the social strategy of the unpopular kid in high school who tries to win friends by having a wild party when his parents are out of town. New Orleans attracts people by allowing them to come and basically get drunk and trash the place*. It's not the sort of culture that conduces to good behavior and orderliness.

2) Stranded people needed food and water and -- legitimately, I'd say -- went into abandoned and wrecked stores to take it in order to survive. Perhaps this lowered some sort of collective psychological barrier than makes taking the next -- and illigitmate -- step of looting TVs, stereos, etc, easier to contemplate.

2a) During the blackout, people were around to defend their property. Looting is quite different practically and morally than looting over the owner's dead body.

3) In New York there was never a vacuum of public authority. IN fact, law enforcement made a very public display of itself on the street. New York City has a very high ratio of police officers to surface area, which is ideal for a situation like the blackout.

4) The N.O. police department has a notorious reputation for corruption and inefficiency. Note the rumors that some police joined in the looting. The NYPD in contrast is considered one of the best urban police forces.

5) New York (especially during work hours!) is comparatively wealthy and professional. New Orleans, to start with, is poor. A very high share of those who did not evacuate are poor, stupid, or both. Basically, you have a lot of animals among this group. A stunned stockbroker is not going to loot. A part-time drug dealer without a high-school diploma is likely to loot.

*A favorite N.O. story. I was down there for IADB annual meetings, heading to a dinner in the French Quarter. An SUV driving slowly down the street (maybe it was Bourbon Street, I can't remember) pulled over to the side. The passenger side window rolled down and a woman's head emerged. The woman heaved an enormous stream of puke onto the sidewalk, the window rolled up and the SUV rolled on. [Ben H.: 9/1/05 06:24]
 
   
Hurricane Reporting

It's been interesting seeing the NYTimes.com coverage of the hurricane. Until this afternoon, the overall sense I got from it (from the font sizes, the headlines, etc.) the disaster seemed bad, but not once-in-lifetime bad. They focused mainly on the sad but goofy story of people being bused from superdome to superdome. Only now are they really giving a sense of how awful it is. CNN's site has been giving a much better sense of this. I guess you could chalk this up to the Times being a regional newspaper in a different region, but on the other hand they have their universalist ambitions. Maybe the Times figures it can't be that bad if the stock markets have remained stable.

Another thing I find remarkable is the extent of the looting, and the contrast with New York. During the August blackout of 2003 (wasn't it?) everybody remarked on how calm everyone was in NYC, unlike the other famous late-70's blackout. In the Katrina case, it sounds kind of like a post-Baghdad-liberation scenario. Why have New Yorkers become so civil, compared to this subset of jerks in the Gulf coast region? [Doug: 8/31/05 22:26]
 
     
 
Neat Free Software

Bibliophiles everywhere will like this simple, powerful library cataloging program. [Ben A.: 8/31/05 02:02]
   
 
Good News, Gluttons!

Caloric restriction: good for mice, ineffective in man. Hey, that sounds like most biotechnology drugs!


[Ben A.: 8/31/05 01:13]
   
 
What's the Event?

As my colleagues and I contemplate the various bubbles by which we are beset -- housing, credit spreads, equities, rates -- we find it difficult to envision what will pop them. A bubblicious system that has lasted so long (arguably since before the beginning of the century) has proven sufficient robustness that it is hard to credit a process endogenous to it bringing it to an end. We skeptics then must pin our hopes on, to lean on Harold MacMillan's oft-cited phrase, "events, dear boy, events." I've taken to joking on the desk that bird flu is going to make my career -- shortly before it ends my life.

Could it be, though, that the pin to prick the bubble has just showed up on Doppler Radar? Hurricane Katrina may physically resemble a bubble more than a pin, but it seems to me to have the potential to challenge the good feelings underlying the markets' complacent risk-tolerance. Start with $30bio in insured losses, levels that will require some level of liquidation of insurers' portfolio -- to be sure, small relative to their overall level of reserves (market value of all quoted re-insurers is close to $1tr), but nonetheless a meaningul selling flow. Then consider the impact on the energy market: 600k bpd in the Gulf shut in, the LOOP (whence comes something like 15% of US imports) closed down -- and for how long, who knows? THis all comes on top of a fairly nervous energy market, and might well dent the insouciant confidence of market participants. Having recently read Dreiser's The Financier, I note that Frank Cowperwood's downfall comes at the hands -- or should I say hoof? -- of Mrs. O'Leary's cow, via losses inflicted by a financial panic in the wake of the great Chicago fire.... [Ben H.: 8/28/05 20:37]
 
   
Good Contemporary Art in New York (Seriously)

Virtually the whole front page of the City section of the Times is a painting of Broome Street by an artist named Frederick Brosen. I don't know if it's great art, especially since the level of detail available to a newspaper (or web) reproduction makes it hard to distinguish from a photograph. But his focus on early-morning New York City scenes is commendable; the time just after dawn is an amazing time to walk around the city. Coincidentally enough, I remember walking around Soho a few years ago (I think I was doing walking meditation) and stopping at the exact point, give or take a hundred feet, from which his Broome Street painting was done, and just looking at the scene for about five minutes, and then walking on. There's something remarkable about that corner. Whether the artist captured it, you be the judge.
[Doug: 8/28/05 13:54]
 
   
Bizarre Coincidence

I recently posted about how the new junta in Mauritania could win over the Scrabble community by renaming its currency the "aieoeui". Little did I know that its currency is already a splendid Scrabble-approved word that will rock your opponent's world if you can play it: OUGUIYA !
[Doug: 8/24/05 18:22]
 
   
This Will Poach That in a Court Bouillon With Tarragon And Port Vinegar

The guiding spirit of Mostly Mozart 2.0 is Louis Langrée, who took over from Schwarz as music director in 2002, having made his name at the Glyndebourne Festival. An amiable-looking fellow with tousled hair, Langrée conducts in a collarless white tunic, which makes him look something like a celebrity chef. (New Yorker) [Doug: 8/23/05 13:00]
 
 
Thou Shalt Not Kill*

Politically-active man-of-God Pat Robertson has recommended that the U.S. assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. As a matter of policy, I think the moment for that course of action, if it was ever opportune, has passed. The Bush Administration's biggest foreign policy mistake, in my view, was to let the 2002 coup unspool without expert U.S. guidance. The anti-Chavistas had the Commandante in their power on a island military base. That he left other than in a body bag is a testament to the incompetence of the anti-Chavistas. Anyway, let's leave aside the question of whether assassination is optimal policy. Doesn't Pat Robertson realize the cognitive dissonance involved in his calling for assassination? It doesn't strike me as very Christian.

*see store for details, certain restrictions apply, void where prohibited and outside the borders of the U.S.A. [Ben H.: 8/23/05 09:11]
 
 
Wah Wah Wah

For their client' sake, one hopes that Merck's lawyers learn from the mistakes of the similarly rebuffed politicians. They ought not make the crux of their argument in the next Vioxx trial that jurors are idiots! [Ben H.: 8/22/05 15:26]
 
   
On the right to be governed by an electorate of our peers

That story of the Texas jury sounds like a microcosm of the 2004 election story. You can easily imagine a Texan saying, "When that Kerry guy was up there tellin' us how there's a difference between Iraq and Al Qaeda, it was like, wah WAH wah WAH WAH." [Doug: 8/22/05 15:01]
 
   
That is absolutely hilarious. [Doug: 8/22/05 13:19]
 
 
The Genius of the Jury System, Demonstrated

The jury system is, to paraphrase Churchill on democracy, the worst system save all the others. Consider the mond-boggling $250 million judgment a Texas jury delivered against Merck in the Vioxx suit. The jury made its decision in spite of a nearly complete absence of evidence that Vioxx had anything to do with the death of the plaintiff's husband. But cut them some slack. Science is hard, apparently, at least according to the Wall Street Journal's interviews with the jurors:

Jurors who voted against Merck said much of the science sailed right over their heads. "Whenever Merck was up there, it was like wah, wah, wah," said juror John Ostrom, imitating the sounds Charlie Brown's teacher makes in the television cartoon. "We didn't know what the heck they were talking about."



[Ben H.: 8/22/05 07:45]
 
 
Inconsiderate Cellphone Man Strikes Again!

Mauled by a tiger!!.
[Ben H.: 8/19/05 15:46]
 
 
What's Wrong With Star Trek?

More than you might think

Via kaus [Ben A.: 8/19/05 08:25]
   
 
Quick Links


Arianna Huffington: Excellence in Self-Knowledge

Greg Gutfeld correctly identifies the greatest lede of all time. Thank you Arianna Huffington, embodiment of excellence!

My summer travels have come to an end with my journey to Ravello. I arrived in Amalfi with my two teenage daughters and took the winding road up to Ravello to visit Gore Vidal...


Big Bunny: Excellence in Animation

I must have linked this at some point. If not, delicious! By the same author, un film d'Amy Winfrey


Freezepop: Excellence in Technopop

Local band. I can't find "Science Genius Girl," their signature piece, online. But this
is representative. (flash is crude, but fun...)


Some Guys on the Internet: Excellence in Fake Protesting

The backstory

So I covered my hat in tinfoil and drove off to matt's place where he'd constructed two large signs. Mine said "The CIA killed Dumbledore!" and had a picture of a wizard, while his said "Dick Cheney is a Giant Communist Robot!" and had a picture of some sort of crazy queen of france arm'd robot.

Certainly, we thought, we'll be yelled at - people will get angry at us very quickly. Not the case...

They took us seriously... They asked to have their pictures taken with our signs. They invited us to the day's events. They gave us a large sign they'd made too! Oy... Here are a couple of exchanges we had while there.

Lady: "Who's Dumbledore? Is he that guy from the Reichstag?"
Matt: "Yeah"
Lady: "Oh! Then you'll love this paper I wrote about it!"

She wrote a fucking crazy ass paper on the reichstag, and didn't realize that there were no wizards there... And no CIA even existed then...

Guy: "Who's Dumbledore?"
Me: "He's that guy from the Reichstag"
Guy: "Oh yeah!"
Me: "Here, have this paper about it."
Guy: "I've got one."



Not bad design sense either.
[Ben A.: 8/18/05 00:28]
   
 
A Longer, Slower, Summer

If you, Doug, are apologizing for lack of posting, I should be flagellating myself with a rusty bike chain. Perhaps the summer heat has sapped my will, but I have shirked such interesting topics as 1) the virtues and vices of James Lileks, 2) the work of Mark Helprin, and 3) not really liking In the Mood For Love despite enormous pressure to do so. These are all topics that normally would provoke a response.

Briefly, they would have been:

1. Lileks' difficulty is that of opinion journalism in a target-rich environment. It's fair to criticize him for shellacking -- and oh, so beautifully shellacking -- the easy targets. But what is a man to do? People criticized Allan Bloom for attacking crude cultural relativism. This was, many thought, beneath his talents. True enough. It is beneath him. But crude cultural relativism existed. In Bloom's time (less so, thank heavens, than now), it was a real dogma that deserved all the elegant scorn Bloom could muster.

So too with Lileks. Yes, his talents are, in some sense, wasted on lefty goofballs, but these goofballs do in fact exist. And who better to smash them than Lileks? My very first exposure to his work was, in fact, his hilarious mockery of Nick Kristoff's 2002 suggesion of filing a lawsuit against Saddam Hussein. I liked this piece so much that I sent it around to all my friends. One responded "very funny, but it's not so hard to satirize such a stupid idea." True enough. But this stupid idea was on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times -- the Boardwalk/Park Place of opinion journalism. When the soft targets aer that common, why should you -- how can you in good conscience? -- go after anything else?

2. Helprin. It's not quite enough to say that he loves his characters too well. It's more that he loves them so much that they become inhuman; they are
like Tolkein's elves, not destined for death and God's presence, but designed to achieve their perfection on earth. Some Jewish sage remarked "better a day doing good deeds on earth than an eternity in heaven." As an Old testament type, and a firm believer in the transcedence of moral action, I suppose there's a lot about that theology that I endorse. It's just a bit weird to see it playing out in a novel.

3. Yeah, totally. Deb thinks I'm a philistine. I am so glad to have your support on this, Doug.



[Ben A.: 8/17/05 23:27]
   
     
   
Beyond The Limits Of Human Self-Control

How, when glancing at ALDaily's "nota bene" column, can you not click on the link that says "Designer Vaginas"? [Doug: 8/16/05 08:24]
 
 
Thomas Pynchon, CEO

CEOs and short-sellers are the financial ecosystems's equivalent of cats and dogs. It comes as no surprise to hear barking and hissing when they meet. Overstock.com's CEO, however, sees something unnatural in the shorts' attacks on his company, alleging a vast conspiracy of hedge funds, journalists, regulators, private investigators and others out to sink his stock. The "others" apparently include a Star Wars character: coordinating the cabal, he says, is a "Sith Lord." This is a metaphor. Maybe.

The CEO, Patrick Byrnes has decided to sue his tormentors and went public with his allegations on a conference call this week. He helpfully provided accompanying visuals, which, by the looks of them, he concocted all by himself, without any help from the Overstock design team. Perhaps I overstate the case. It does appear he may have modelled them on previous work by that schitzophrenic homeless guy we've all seen brandishing a cardboard placard illustrating the cooperative effort of David Rockerfeller, the Trilateral Commission, Roy Cohn, and the Ringling Brothers' Circus to control his mind via implants in his dental work.

The weird thing is, despite Byrnes' nutty presentation, there may be some substance to his allegations. Rules for paranoids: "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you." [Ben H.: 8/14/05 14:29]
 
   
Checking In

Just wanted to apologize for the summer slowdown in posting. Dao and I have been on a weeklong vacation in the Bay area and neither of us brought a laptop (the first such vacation in a while, I think). We fly back tomorrow and I expect posting will increase after that. In fact I expect to experience a uptick in mental activities generally -- I've maintained a remarkable level of lethargy all summer and I don't think I can keep it up much longer.

I don't have much to report about our vacation. It's basically been a continuation of summer sloth in a nicer climate -- less torrid, equally torpid. We went up to Napa with our friend Ed whom we met in Paris. We toured a couple wineries and came to the conclusion that their wares are seriously overpriced. I hadn't been aware that Napa had become strictly a prestige region. Oh well.

[Doug: 8/14/05 13:24]
 
 
Herman Melville Nails the French

"And yet, notwithstanding their iniquitous conduct in this and in other matters, the French have ever plumed themselves upon being hte most humane and polished of nations." [Ben H.: 8/12/05 17:15]
 
   
J.S. Mill Nails The Blogosphere

"Were we to search among men’s recorded thoughts for the choicest manifestations of human imbecility and prejudice, our specimens would be mostly taken from their opinions of the opinions of one another." (Quoted by John Holbo on thevalve.org.) [Doug: 8/11/05 12:34]
 
 
A South Korean man died of heart failure after a 50-hour computer-gaming session. Apparently, not having been in our Harvard rooming group, Doug, he never devised a shift-work system of game playing, nor playing-by-macro. [Ben H.: 8/10/05 06:02]
 
   
Various Replies

First, we're here tomorrow but not Wednesday so give us a call.

Second, Deepak Chopra is a buffoon. And facile spirituality has other annoying incarnations, e.g. this review of a Tibetan Buddhist art exhibit in today's Times. As you read it you might ask yourself whether the Times would ever run a piece so gushingly effusive about, say, Christian devotional art. Or no; they might allow gushing about Christian art; what the piece wouldn't be allowed to do is transform into an effusion about Christianity itself. Whereas:

Tara and her cohort drink the blood of enemies of the dharma, prance naked on the bodies of those they have defeated, and join with male consorts in passionate sexual union. They are transcendent liberators, defenders of enlightened mind, the birthright of each of us, when we turn to the wisdom within.


Just image the Times printing "Jesus is the transcendent liberator, the salvation within each of us, when we turn to the wisdom within." Equally annoying is the (very Deepak Chopra-ish) incurious it's-all-good grooviness of the reviewer's spirituality. Anyone possessing the least iota of knowledge of the Buddha's dharma has to remark on — not necessarily resolve or even try to resolve, but at least remark on — the apparent contradiction between his pacifism and the "drink[ing of] the blood of enemies of the dharma" described here. Or between his strategy of non-attachment and the "passionate sexual union" described here. But no. It's all part of the groovy Himalayan wisdom, dude ... [Doug: 8/7/05 00:53]
 
     
 
Various

One artist who does not mistake his gifts: Greg Gutfeld, who basically uses the Huffington post as one enormous straight man. Behold!

Question: My friends laugh out loud when they read Deepak Chopra's posts. But I find the posts deeply spiritual. Is that normal?

Answer: It is normal if you're a rich, well-educated but confused individual who finds organized religion too difficult to fit into her schedule and far too demeaning to her ego-driven intellect. While real faith requires sacrifice and a willingness to look outside yourself, "spirituality" alone is internal, ego-based and easy to do. Spirituality without religion is like pretending you won the game without playing. Instead of contemplating God, you contemplate your navel. "And it's an endless, ever-expanding navel," Deepak might say.


Also, I am in NYC tomorrow and Wednesday, if you all are free. [Ben A.: 8/7/05 00:20]
   
     
   
Nietzsche Contra Wong Kar Wai

Maybe Wong Kar Wai missed his calling as a tosser-off of wacky films (which is not necessarily to say a tosser). Nietzsche wrote eloquently about artists who mistake their own gifts. But he was concerned mainly with an artist who wrongly turned away from meditative melancholy miniatures, not towards them.

I believe that artists often do not know what they can do best: they are too vain. They are intent on something prouder than these small plants seem to be which grow on their soil, new, strange and beautiful, in real perfection. What is ultimately good in their own garden and vineyard they esteem lightly, and their love and insight are not equal. There is a musician who, more than any other musician, is a master at finding the tones in the realm of suffering, depressed, and tortured souls, at giving language even to mute misery. None can equal him in the colors of late fall, oh the indescribably moving happiness of the last, truly last, truly shortest joy; he knows a sound for those quiet, disquieting midnights of the soul, where cause and effect seem to be out of joint and where at any moment something might originate "out of nothing." He draws most happily of all out of the profoundest depth of human happiness, and, as it were, out of its drained goblet, where the bitterest and most repulsive drops have finally and evilly run together with the sweetest. He knows that weariness of the soul which drags itself, unable to leap or fly any more, even to walk; he masters the shy glance of concealed pain, of understanding without comfort, of the farewell without confession—indeed, as the Orpheus of all secret misery he is greater than any; and some things have been added to the realm of art by him alone, things that had hitherto seemed inexpressible and even unworthy of art—the cynical rebellion, for example, of which only those are capable who suffer most bitterly; also some very minute and microscopic aspects of the soul, as it were the scales of its amphibian nature: indeed, he is the master of the very minute. But he does not want to be that. His character prefers large walls and audacious frescoes . . . It escapes him that his spirit has a different taste and inclination — the opposite perspective — and prefers to sit quietly in the nooks of collapsed houses: there, hidden, hidden from himself, he paints his real masterpieces, all of which are very short, often only one beat long — only then does he become wholly good, great, and perfect, perhaps there alone. Wagner is one who has suffered deeply — that is his distinction above other musicians. I admire Wagner wherever he puts himself into music. —


(Copied from this site) [Doug: 8/6/05 23:23]
 
 
Wanker Wai

Ah, yes, the hoary trinity of highbrow film and fiction: love, loss, memory. Earlier in his career, Wong Kar Wai did not turn out such pretentious twaddle. No, he turned out straight-up dreck, like Haunted Cop Shop, which film I wrote about here. [Ben H.: 8/5/05 15:24]
 
   
The A.P. Finally Tells It Like It Is

I won't try to justify my dislike for Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love. I just want to note that his new film "2046" seems like more of the same. An Associated Press review of it says it plays like a parody of the director's older movies, and continues:

Wong's rendering of 1960s Hong Kong -- dreamily romantic, like an impressionist painting come to life -- is so mesmerizing, it's almost enough to distract from the fact that beneath the surface, there's little substance to the characters or situations in which they find themselves. A woman slowly and gracefully lifts a cigarette to her lips, the smoke curling artfully from her fingertips, and it's practically ballet. But really, if you stop to think about it, it's just a woman spacing out while smoking a cigarette in the kitchen.


Style without substance, you say? Why then, it's a foregone conclusion that the Times' Manohla Dargis will call it an "unqualified triumph". I guess this is what happens to one's powers of appreciation when one's parents name one after an haute-couture shoe. [Doug: 8/5/05 14:07]
 
 
We Can't Buy a Nantucket Summer Home with Prestige!

The Harvard University Technical and Clerical Workers Union used to argue for higher pay with the slogan "We Can't Eat Prestige." Harvard Management, it seems, has found that top-notch money managers feel the same way. Several candidates approached to succeed Jack Meyer at the helm of HMC have declined to pursue the post. Those who might otherwise have plumped for the job rightly conclude that the activism of hippy-dippy alums limits compensation to well below the market rate. A business card with an ancient seal upon can't make up for millions of dollars a year in foregone pay. Of course, you heard it here on the the bandarlog first. [Ben H.: 8/5/05 08:18]
 
   
Coup D'Etat

I strongly condemn the coup d'etat in Mauritania, as its sudden media exposure forces me to acknowledge that I don't even know what continent it's on. However, I would look more indulgently on the usurpers if they renamed the currency the "aieoeui" and thereby created the perfect Scrabble vowel dump. [Doug: 8/3/05 19:23]
 
   
Darwin's Nightmare

I think I mentioned to both of you -- but not on this site -- the movie Darwin's Nightmare. It's coming out in New York now and I recommend it. It's basically about how life in Tanzania is hell. It gives a very clear impression that globalization is to blame, but there is nothing remotely Michael Moorish about the movie. Check it out. [Doug: 8/2/05 23:01]
 
 
The Cobbler's Kids Have No Shoes Department

Accounting chain H&R Block was forced to restate its earnings this week... due to accounting errors! [Ben H.: 8/2/05 06:06]
 
     
 

 

 

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