Ben A.
Ben H.

Mazel Tov

Congratulations on going solar. When I think my mathematics career is heading towards stillbirth (pretty often these days) I sometimes think I should reinvent myself as a green energy impresario, since that seems to be the bubble of the moment (unless the moment has already passed). Qualifications: Harvard physics degree, magna cum laude. Hard to argue with that! And there's no way anyone can prove that all I retain from my time there is a decent Hans und Franz accent.

I'm actually quite proud of a home-improvement item I recently acquired -- a 100% Belgian polypropylene carpet:

The carpet cost about one eighth what a handmade Middle Eastern one would cost, and is superior in so many ways -- the design is in symmetric to a tolerance of about a half-centimeter, none of its price will be siphoned off to the Taliban, and it gives the whole room a nice new-car smell from the polypropylene. Thanks Conforama! [Doug: 6/20/07 11:20]
It's Not Easy Being Green

Installation of a solar power system on my house has finally reached a successful conclusion. It took a mere 5 months! At least 80% of the time related to applying for and waiting for approval of various permits. Then again, New York State paid for around 60% of the cost. Bureaucracy giveth and bureaucracy taketh away. Whether the system generates nearly as much power as advertised, only time will tell. [Ben H.: 6/20/07 06:53]
What's more shocking to me is that presidential polls constantly make the news in the first half of 2007. I'm going to have to listen to all this insincere rhetoric and horse-race coverage of it for the next 18 months!

My friend Gary has invited me to attend an Obama fundraiser* next week. I will probably attend, and let you guys know what I find. You shouldn't underestimate, Doug, how assiduously Madame Chiang -- I mean, Hillary! -- has courted Democratic opinion leaders over the past several years; nor how besotted most Democrats remain with Bill Clinton, to the point where I've heard Hillary supporters talk of how much influence he will wield in her administration as an argument in favor of supporting their candidate.

* Why, you ask, would I consent to give money to Obama? Let me tell you my new philosophy on political giving. I never respond to direct candidate appeals. I give money to candidates when I am asked by other people, generally wealthy/powerful people from my industry. I don't believe -- at the margin! -- that a little money makes any difference to electoral outcomes. Nor do I believe that even raising a lot of money can buy political favors. And I suspect that the people hitting me up aren't so deluded either. What they want is the social cachet of being close to a famous person with political power. A shot at a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, as it were. Now, these wealthy/powerful people could easily afford to give an arbitrarily large amount of money, but campaign finance laws prevent it. To buy the cachet they desire, they instead need to mobilize a network of donors at $5K-ish a pop. If I give $5K when asked, then I have effectively banked a favor from a wealthy and powerful person. Such a person would not ordinarily do a favor for money. Certainly not for $5K! But in this case, thanks to contribution limits, I can put him in my debt for a relatively small amount of money. [Ben H.: 6/17/07 10:04]
American Politics

Is Hillary really outpolling Obama by ten points? Has the Democratic base become as idiotic as the Republicans'? Defeat is supposed to be sobering, not stupefying. [Doug: 6/16/07 13:09]
What's going on in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza shows (yet again) that there's no point spending Western money and brainpower trying to understand and influence the politics of the region. Arab-Muslim culture today is clans killing clans, period. (Or maybe semicolon; there are a few exceptions like Morocco.) What is honored is crushing the other guy -- cooperation and negotiation are effeminate, and anything feminine is bad, literally to be locked away out of sight. And any clan we help becomes tainted with apostasy. The weapons we give them are likely to end up in the hands of the craziest clans; Hamas has apparently captured lots of weapons from Fatah. Note that there is nothing racial about these observations. My own ancestors were devoted to killing other clans as recently as three or four centuries ago (damn Campbells!).

No, these people are going to remain barbarians for a long long time, and only a slow change in their culture, one that makes peace and love positive values rather than blasphemies, will civilize them. The increasingly global media may help in this respect. But there's no guarantee that the media will help rather than hurt. Today you have Lebanese TV stations whose announcers gloat over the murder of leaders of opposing clans and call for more.

[Doug: 6/15/07 08:06]
Of course, the real problem is Israel.

I particularly love how Abbas says he is "considering" pulling Fatah out of the cabinet. I'm sure that comforts the Fatah gunmen getting executed by Hamas. "Our leader is really willing to go to the wall for us! He is considering pulling out of the government!" [Ben H.: 6/14/07 10:49]
Another Extreme Gourmet Idea

I know I've mentioned this idea in private communication: in situ cooking of game. You hike into the wild with one of those microwave-beam weapons being developed by the military, spot a pheasant, turn your gun to max, and cook it without killing it or beforehand. As with "diver scallops", part of the prestige of the dish comes from the skill of the hunter; it will be hard to keep the beam trained on the pheasant as it starts to fly away in response to the uncomfortable warmth it suddenly feels. Then you helicopter the bird to a top NYC restaurant where it is presented, cooked but otherwise immaculate, to a rich jaded diner. This idea takes the purity fetish of sous vide cooking to the next level. The one potential hitch is that you need to find some animal that doesn't need to be bled prior to eating. [Doug: 6/11/07 04:04]
In-Laws In High Places

Congratulations to Dao's sister who got elected to that Harvard Alumni Board thing -- can't remember the exact title, nor the exact powers that are conferred on her, but maybe we can prevail on her to support the Richard Cheese Institute of Smegmology, the founding of which was our chief post-graduation wish for our alma mater, if I'm not mistaken. Also it is not clear to me how she won; her resume is as brilliant as the other candidates' but she's never been an Undergraduate-Council-type glad-hander. What put her over the top was probably Dao's message to our class's list-serv pointing out that she was the most physically attractive candidate. [Doug: 6/6/07 16:24]
Burger War Arms Race

How about we breed a bull and cow, then kill them and grind them up and feed them to their offspring, and repeat this for ten or twenty generations, until we have meat with such a concentrated, musky beefiness that NYC sybarites will pay $100 an ounce for it? Ben H, aren't you on the board of directors of a cattle ranch? I want you to get on this.
[Doug: 6/6/07 15:18]
Damien Hirst's stunt puts me in mind of the brief but intense New York Hamburger War of 2005. Recall that a series of New York eateries vied with each other for press attention attendent to putting the most expensive hamburget in New York on the menu. One establishment made burgers out of Wagyu. The next made a Wagyu burger stuffed with truffles. And so on. Hirst understands that his art has little to commend it. Even its aesthetic shock value has faded. But the one sure way to epater la bourgoisie is via sticker-shock. GBP50mio! Holy god! To paraphrase John Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction: "I gotta see what a 50mio sterling skull looks like." Knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing... [Ben H.: 6/3/07 21:08]
Two Contemporary Incongruists Show Their Stuff

There's this, an installation of war implements covered in chocolate. Well, okay. But then there's this. Dude, art is cool. [Doug: 6/2/07 12:16]
Let me hear you depoliticize my rhyme

Le Tigre's "Deceptacon" is the background music for a new "Just For Men" hair dye ad. [Ben A.: 6/1/07 03:13]
Best Argument Yet For Creationism

From a Guardian story about the opening of the world's first creationism musuem, in Kentucky:

When Mr Marsh was asked to explain the existence of fossilised remains of man's ancestors, he replied: "There are no such things.

"Humans are basically as you see them today. Those skeletons they've found, what's the word? They could have been deformed, diseased or something.

"I've seen people like that running round the streets of New York."
[Doug: 5/29/07 12:31]
The Aesthetics Of Ostentatiously White Covers Of Rap Songs

The point of covering these songs is not to ridicule them. In large measure, the point is ironic juxtaposition. I might then be asked why I laud Nina Gordon, Ben Folds, et al. for these songs, when I denigrate most "contemporary art world" visual artists as mere "incongruists". Four reasons come immediately to mind: the songs are funny (and conceptual art tends to be painfully unfunny); the songs (that we've linked to) are well-crafted enough to enjoy even if you can't make out the lyrics and hence the "idea" behind them; the singers are infinitely less pompous on average than the artists; the singers don't generally demand public funding for their work.

Beyond these excuses for their ironic juxtapositions, I think these covers bring out something poignant about the lives of the original rappers. There is something sad about being reduced to making these ridiculous boasts about your toughness, about your being able to "knock n----s out the box daily, monthly, and yearly" -- and setting the boasts to wistful white-girl music brings out the sadness more vividly than anything else I can imagine. [Doug: 5/24/07 16:47]
Ho's of the world, unite!

A revolution is not warranted, but higher estate and capital gains taxes are. The suckers who largely comprise the U.S. electorate can take or leave Republican arguments to the contrary, as far as I'm concerned personally. [Doug: 5/23/07 11:32]
Putting Iraq Carnage in Perspective

There's quite a lot of murder and mayhem in Iraq, though marginally less these days than a few months back. It's enough that observers debate whether it can be considered "civil war" or "anarchy." I tend to come down on the "no" side of that question, but acknowledge the validity of the question. The funny thing, though, is that the same question doesn't get asked of several countries that have rates of violent death that rival Iraq's. Countries such as Venezuela, which racked up over 18,000 homicides last year. By comparison, Brookings estimates just over 34,000 Iraqi violent deaths in 2006. The countries' populations are roughly equal. But the Bolivarian Republic is a socialist paradise of freedom and abundance, right? [Ben H.: 5/23/07 09:10]
Humps for Chumps

Bread and sluts have more powerful narcotic properties than bread and circuses, maybe. On the other hand, maybe the anecdotally informed narrative of the poor getting left in the dust doesn't reflect reality. CBO study of families with children show that the poorest 20% have seen their incomes rise 78% from 1991 to 2005, while the middle 10% have only seen an 18% increase. It seems to me that the real economic divergence is between the super-rich and everybody else. But unless you can tell me that doctors and lawyers have salved their psychic wounds at the hands of dot-com gazillionaires and Goldman partners with "My Humps", I think we'll need to look elsewhere for an explanation for the tardiness of revolution.

Guys, I have a question about these crooner reinterpretations of hip-hop classics. Are they meant to make fun of the source material? Is it just non-satirical ironic juxtaposition of mellow music and provocative lyrics? Genuine homage? Having lost track of popular culture (I don't even have a radio in my house anymore!), I can't figure it out myself.

[Ben H.: 5/23/07 08:58]
Humps For Chumps

If the original "My Humps" is godawful from an aesthetic point of view, we nonetheless owe it thanks from a socio-political point of view. We, that is, of the upper and upper-middle classes. The lower classes have emitted hardly a peep of protest over the last 25 years as our wealth has soared farther and farther beyond theirs, and at least some of the explanation has to be our (their?) sex-saturated popular culture, which keeps their thoughts focused on fucking rather than on politics. [Doug: 5/23/07 07:40]
"My Humps"

As part of our continuing effort to make the bandarlog the world-wide blogleader in ironic white-guy covers of rap songs, I offer the Morissette version of "My Humps."

For comparison, the godawful original

And Speaking of Alanis

"Ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife... with which to kill your spouse for sleeping with the young soup chef who works at the Au Bon Pain."

Lyrics to "Ironic" modified to make them actually ironic [Ben A.: 5/22/07 04:02]
Manichaeism: Ever More Plausible

"The beaver was one of the most sacred animals of ancient Iran. According to the Avesta, beavers are formed from the ghosts of dogs. So beavers were known as "water-dogs." A single beaver was thought to have as much holiness as a thousand dogs"

That seems about the right ratio to me. More here [Ben A.: 5/20/07 20:09]
On The Tone-Deafness of Politicians

Sarkozy's post-election jaunt aboard the tycoon Vincent Bollore's yacht may have angered Francois Q. Frenchman, but it reassured me. I take some comfort in knowing that these boughts of sudden and utter tone-deafness are not an affliction unique to American politicians. How could it not have occurred to Sarko that hopping aboard a mogul's luxury yacht would erode his support among the less posh voting public? Perhaps in the very same way that it would not occur to John Edwards that harping on class resentment with the theme of "two Americas" would sound wildly insincere coming from a man who had just bought a 25,000 square foot house; or that it might sound slightly less than credible to respond to questions about why he had gone to work for mega-hedge-fund Fortress Investments by explaining that he "wanted to explore the relationship between financial markets and poverty." Hint: the relationship is not one of propinquity. The question is not: who would believe such a transparently insincere answer? Rather, it is: what kind of person believes that such a transparently insincere answer will fool anybody?

So whence the tone-deafness? Sarko isn't stupid. John Edwards isn't stupid. I have to believe that the source of this weird behavior is contempt. Contempt -- perhaps subsconcious -- for the intelligence of the average voter. America and France may possess very different political virtues, but at least some of their vices are in common. [Ben H.: 5/10/07 19:06]

Apparently the singer on the track linked to below used to be in Veruca Salt, whose "Seether" you might remember hearing on the radio during the Summer of Grunge. I, for one, remember that the song's refrain ("Can't fight the seether!" X 3) was bizarrely catchy, so I just looked it up on YouTube, hoping maybe it would turn out in retrospect to be a masterpiece. It's not; the refrain, however, remains catchy. [Doug: 5/10/07 17:17]
Another Cover of a Rap Song in an Ostentatiously White Style

Not sure when I became such a devoté of the genre, but here's the MP3 of a very respectable specimen of it, namely "Straight Outta Compton" as sung by Nina Gordon, a wistful white singer/songwriter type. (How white? This white.) [Doug: 5/10/07 02:43]
Your comment does capture a difference between them: Berlusconi is a lord of capital in his own right, directly owning much of the Italian media; Sarkozy merely hangs with the CAC-40 crowd. [Doug: 5/9/07 02:15]
If he were Berlusconi, he'd have his own yacht! [Ben H.: 5/8/07 16:22]

The leftist opposition has grafted Sarkozy's name onto that of just about every villain the right-wing pandaemonium; I'm afraid one of the names fits, namely Berlusconi. Sarkozy's first post-election act was to retreat to the luxury yacht of one of his industrialist buddies, in the Mediterranean. It's a sign that we should expect more crony capitalism, and less creative start-up fervor, than we might hope. [Doug: 5/8/07 10:40]
Sarkozy After All

I'm a bit disappointed that the French chose a president who promised them a more "normal" Western republic. Where will we go for lectures on how an enormous public sector is the best policy and will eradicate unemployment any day now? We should not fear a complete effacement of French specificities though, for Sarkozy, in his largely successful attempt to siphon off the xenophobic Le Pen vote, has promised a new Ministry of National Identity. I'm envisioning a scenario where I bang on the Minister's door: "I demand immediate re-education for the man who served me lunch today -- he was efficient and polite -- a traitor to our tradition of sneering resentful waiters!"

Really my main concern about the election is how it affects the value of our apartment. Upside: a pro-business president energizes the economy which pumps up the housing market. Downside: civil war can't be good for property values. [Doug: 5/7/07 04:51]
How To Start a Race-Riot at JFK

On my arrival at JFK from London, I was paged over the airplanes PA system. "This can't be good," I thought. Had my bags been lost? Had Eliot Spitzer come after me for some imagined financial crime? With some trepidation, I approached the agent on the jetway to identify myself. Now, I have flown so many miles on American Airlines that I have made it past Gold, Platinum, and even Executive Platinum, to reach the secret trans-Executive-Platinum level know as "VIP". According to the agent, because of this status, I was to be escorted through passport control, skipping the line. I've had this VIP status for some time, but never received this special treatment. Apparently, though, AA just added this benefit recently. A colleague from the London office happened to be taking the same flight. He caught up with us on the jetway, and with the agent's permission, accompanied us to take advantage of my line-jumping status.

The flight that had arrived just in front of ours came from Kingston, Jamaica. When we got to passport control, a very long line consisting almost exclusively of black Jamaicans had formed. No special line or bypass exists for this VIP program. INstead, the (white) agent with her two (white) charges entered at the back of the line and proceeded to push her and our way forward to the head of the line. To say that this provoked grumbling would be an understatement. I believe the term "bloodclot" may have been muttered more than once. By the time we got to the front, I felt that we might have provoked a race riot. At that point, I wondered, ought I turn around and try to explain? This isn't a question of a "whites to the head of the line" policy; I didn't even ask for this treatment. Or, ought i just collect my stamp and... run? I chose the wise coward's path... [Ben H.: 4/30/07 08:15]
THe recording I have of the Haydn Cello Concerto features Rostropovich. One of my favorite discs... [Ben H.: 4/27/07 13:02]

I had the good fortune to go to one of his concerts in Paris a few years ago. I recall he played a piece by a friend and countryman of his, whose name I can't recall, and whose style was more Boulez/Stockhausen than Shostakovich. Like most such music it left me scratching my head, but Rostropovich seemed really into it. Then he played a (the?) Haydn concerto, whose warmth and wit he brought out perfectly. What I remember best is the cadenza of the last movement. He clearly improvised it, trying to create something vital and unique out of the spirit of that evening. Which meant that it echoed a lot of the music of his friend's piece, which he'd played previously, and sort of felt its way into a weird zone of dissonance and atonality roughly two centuries removed from Haydn's notes. It was thrilling: how is he going to get himself out this? you wondered. Well, in the end he just gave a shrug and nod to the conductor and the coda was underway: the cadenza was a dead-end failure. But what eloquence in that shrug and nod! "I'm Mstislav Rostropovich," it said, "I have nothing to prove, certainly not that my artistic experiments are unfailingly successful! On with the show!". This cheerful attitude towards experimentation is much cooler with me than that of another senior musician, Elliott Carter, which I wrote about a while back. And anyway he did a movement from a Bach suite as an encore, and we in the audience forgave all. [Doug: 4/27/07 09:33]
I hear JP Morgan is issuing a bond for this new planet this week... [Ben H.: 4/26/07 06:04]
Un Autre Monde Est Possible!

I guess the anti-globo guys were right, another world is possible. Now if they would only go there. [Doug: 4/25/07 07:34]
Why Are Liberals Drawn To The Oceans?

Don't have too many other observations about the first round of voting here. The polls pretty much got it right. Sarkozy seems to be in position to win. I still stick by my Segolene prediction though; a deal with Bayrou may put her over the top. And I confess to a personal preference for a Sego victory; where is the charm of France without strikes, without super-entitled functionaries posing as oppressed Zola heroes, without the blithe statements of "the superiority of the French system" in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence? Well, the truth is that I don't think Sarkozy will change things half as much as people hope or fear. [Doug: 4/23/07 03:58]



Ben A.
Ben H.