Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: Bright Star

I'm sometimes a sucker for period pieces, particularly ones with a literary bent. In this regard, Bright Star, which focuses on the poet John Keats but is really about Fanny Brawne does not disappoint. The use of the language of Keats's poems works well. The film imparts the tightly circumscribed world of most people during that time and place as well as the intense, rather adolescent, nature of love at the time. The movie is exactly what you think it is. I enjoyed it.

Review: The Hurt Locker

In many ways The Hurt Locker is a simple film that works very well. Simple because it focuses on an extremely circumscribed stage: the experiences of a single group of people. There is no encompassing larger theme. Just one man and his relationship with war. No political message, other then, perhaps, the meek hopelessness of war, is imparted. As a movie it is tight and suspenseful. There is no real political message here. Perhaps that is as it should be. But, one can't help but wonder why are we there and what are we trying to do?

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker November 23

Selected thoughts on the 23 November 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

This is the food issue.

Lunch With M. (by John Colapinto)
Colapinto interviews an inspector from the Michelin restaurant review in New York. Interesting tidbits about their training, the Michelin philosophy, and the impact of rankings on the restaurant scene are revealed. There is definitly an element of food porn to this article. If there is ever a place for that, though, I suppose it would be the yearly New Yorker food issue. So, there you go. Still, an enjoyable article to read.

The Taste Makers (by Raffi Khatchadourian)
This was an extremely interesting article. It is all about "natural flavors", what exactly that means, and how flavorists hunt up and create new flavors in the lab and by sampling nature. The article is largely centered on Michelle Hagen, a flavorist for the Givaudan company in Cincinnati. It follows her in her lab as well as on taste searching trips. This long article is wonderful and full of too much information to easily summarize. You won't regret reading it.

What's the Recipe (by Adam Gopnik)
The setup to this essay by Gopnik is ripped right from a New Yorker cartoon caption: a man and a women reading in bed. She's reading a fashion magazine and he's reading a cookbook. Why are they reading this things? Indeed, in this age-of-Google, what is a cookbook for? Gopnik lays out some potential reasons, but the point that sticks with me his is phrasing about the cycle of desire and disillusion:
The desire to go on desiring, the wanting to want, is what makes you turn the pages—all the while aware that the next Boston cream pie, the sweet-salty-fatty-starchy thing you will turn out tomorrow, will be neither more nor less unsatisfying than last night’s was. When you start to cook, as when you begin to live, you think that the point is to improve the technique until you end up with something perfect, and that the reason you haven’t been able to break the cycle of desire and disillusion is that you haven’t yet mastered the rules. Then you grow up, and you learn that that’s the game.
Unheavenly Host (by Nancy Franklin)
A review of television (and radio) personality Glenn Beck. Real or imagined, it really is some sort of performance.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker November 16

Selected thoughts on the 16 November 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

November 9th (by George Packer)
The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War sort of snuck up on me. Hard to believe it's been 29 years. Packer's piece reminds us just how amazing the turn of events was--especially in contrast with other would-be revolutions since then that haven't work out nearly as peacefully or successfully.

Slow Fade (by Arthur Krystal)
Krystal recounts the years famed author F. Scott Fitzgerald spent trying to make a living as a Hollywood screenwriter. Piece is notable for its depiction of the factory-like nature of the screenwriting process. Fitzgerald never really fit in well as a cog in that machine.

Nightmare Scenario (by Margaret Talbot)
This is a fascinating article that focuses on nightmares--particularly on emerging psychotherapeutic techniques for treating (managing?) them. The article largely focuses on Barry Krakow (who apparently has a blog)of the Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences, a clinic in New Mexico. Talbot interviews several other researchers, with a focus on a technique known as imagery-rehearsal therapy. It is pretty much what it sounds like, a sort of cognitive-behavioral take on dreams. There are all kinds of interesting things in this article, unfortunately I'm not sure how much weight to put into them since I'm newly wary of the Igon Value effect. That's a topic I'll have to come to terms with at some point. For example, there is an interesting claim that self-reported dreaming in color vs black and white has a strong correlation with television technology, and that dreams are now experienced as short, YouTube ready snippets rather than the sprawling narratives of Freud's era.

The Pharaoh (by Ian Parker)
This is an absolutely fascinating article. Parker presents a profile of the well-known Egyptian archeologist Zahi Hawass. Hawass is the head of the Egyptian Council of Antiquities and an omni-present expert on television documentaries. The article discusses the interesting role of ancient artifacts in modern Egypt as well as the politics of the small community of Ancient Egyptian scholars. Hawass's own academic findings and work habits are also explained. It was very enjoyable to learn more about Hawass, as well as the inside information on the connection between infotainment and scholarship when it comes to ancient Egypt. This piece is a must read if you are at all interested in ancient Egypt.

Hosed (by Elizabeth Kolbert)
Kolbert's review Superfreakonomics is an apt coup de grâce to the whole issue of "experts" (square quotes intended) and contrariness. Kolbert attacks the problem head on:
But what’s most troubling about “SuperFreakonomics” isn’t the authors’ many blunders; it’s the whole spirit of the enterprise. Though climate change is a grave problem, Levitt and Dubner treat it mainly as an opportunity to show how clever they are. Leaving aside the question of whether geoengineering, as it is known in scientific circles, is even possible—have you ever tried sending an eighteen-mile-long hose into the stratosphere?—their analysis is terrifyingly cavalier.
Lift and Separate (by Ariel Levy)
I've been thinking about Feminism lately. This is partly spurred by Jessica Valenti's wedding and partly by Sarah Palin. So, I was happy to come across the review of the Feminism movement by Levy. In this piece, motivated by a new book about American Women from 1960 to the present by Gail Collins, Levy argues for a collective bout of amnesia coupled with false memories when it comes to the history and accomplishments of feminism.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Review: The Age of Innocence

Following on from The House of Mirth, I recently finished Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Published in 1920, this novel focuses on the morals of 1870s-era New York Society. The title is intended to be ironic, as the protagonist, Newland Archer, definitely has some inclinations that Society would not approve of. The point, however, is that in the end Archer chooses to repress his true feelings.

Archer, a young lawyer from a fashionable family, faces a problem that is not unique to his time or place. Should he marry the woman he is engaged to--the beautiful but dull and passive May, or the exciting, foreign-influenced, and curious (and already married but nearly divorced) Ellen? What a choice. Clearly, in the end Archer does the Right Thing and carries on through life and marriage as he is dutifully expected to. This is made all the more apparent by the final chapter which revisits Archer and his engaged son 25 years later. His son lives essentially in the times depicted in The House of Mirth, a detail that adds a fascinating backdrop for Wharton's depiction of the way things were.

I quite enjoyed my 2009 perspective on Wharton's 1920 perspective on what things were like in the 1870s. There isn't anything deep or nuanced in the story, but the commentary on society and shifting morals and marriage is still fertile territory.

The obvious questions is, all things considered, did Archer pick the right woman? But, really, he never actually had a choice. And, more importantly, no body was nearly as independent, educated, or--dare I say it--modern as the characters in The House of Mirth.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review: PNB Director's Choice

Well, I guess even geniuses put together a dud at times. I did not enjoy Pacific Northwest Ballet's recent Directors Choice performances. I was irritated at times, however, so perhaps Peter Boal is doing something right.

Some brief comments:

Parts of Petite Mort were very good. And what is there to not like about dancing with swords? But, the dancers were noticeably out of sync at points--a big problem in a piece with such slow segments. It had less of an emotional punch than I expected. Mopey, featuring James Moore, was just very odd. Perhaps I wasn't angry enough to get it? The Seasons (a world premiere of a piece by Val Caniparoli) was much more traditional. Parts of it were engaging, but I would have preferred more of a plot or emotional trajectory connecting the different parts. West Side Story Suite (which I have seen before at PNB) is just a travesty. What's the point? Just go see a production of the musical--it already has such iconic choreography.

Perhaps my disappointment in this production indicates that I have now seen enough ballet to know what I like and to be unafraid of having a negative opinion. Still, I'm looking forward to my next chance to see a ballet.

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker October 26, November 2, and November 9

I got distracted by life (turns out to be a good way to waste a week). Here is a 3-in-1 update of very selected thoughts.

Selected thoughts on the 26 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Predator War (by Jane Mayer)
The use of remote-controlled aircraft to kill people has become common place, as Mayer's piece makes clear. How is this different from targeted assassinations? And what does it mean for the connection between us and the real costs of war? It's no Skynet, but this piece raises some very important questions.

The Inferno (by Christine Kenneally)
Typically, in Australia people are told to stay and ride-out a forest fire, while in the US people are urged to flee. Is that changing? Kenneally reports on a tragic fire in Australia and how the results of tthe different approaches may effect future government advice.

Man of Extremes (by Dana Goodyear)
One can't help but to compare Goodyear's profile of director James Cameron with David Foster Wallace's profile of David Lynch. The two pieces are very different in focus and style, but both are very rewarding reads. In addition to discussion of the Cameron's soon-to-be-released film, Avatar (perhaps the most expensive movie every made), this piece revisits Cameron's past work and explores his motivation. This is very interesting article.

Selected thoughts on the 2 November 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Why Banks Stay Big (by James Surowiecki)
Yet another cogent discussions of financial system. Surowiecki makes an interesting point: it is a huge pain to switch banks, meaning that most people end up being "locked in" to some specific choice.

I Don't Get It
This is the cartoon issue of the New Yorker. Per usual, some obscure cartoon references are explained. It's fun to try to differentiate the fake and the real explanations.

Selected thoughts on the 9 November 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Talk This Way (Alec Wilkinson)
This piece is a fascinating profile of Hollywood dialect coach Tim Monich. He is an academic descendant of Henry Sweet--the model for Henry Higgins. The written examples illustrate the sounds of the different dialects surprisingly well. It is clear why Monich is the master of this area.

Captives (by Lawrence Wright)
Wright reports on what happened during the most recent Israeli incursions in Gaza. More importantly, he provides a larger context of the recent history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was shocked by the contrast between the present situation in the Palestinian territories with the state of affairs in the early 1990s. It is hard to be somewhat depressed by this piece. A lot is written and claimed about this conflict, and there are claims and counterclaims and points of moral equivalency that I cannot even begin to judge. I will not try to summarize this article. I recommend reading it and thinking hard about the world we live in.

Possessed (by Thomas Mallon)
Mallon uses the recent publication of two biographies about Ayn Rand to discuss her as an author and philosopher. One might think that Rand would be going out of style because of the economic meltdown--after all, Alan Greenspan was a disciple of Rand. However, it seems that the opposite has occurred, with her philosophy getting a rebirth. This, of course, has happened before--usually whenever the Democratic Party gains even a little bit of political power. Most people realize the problems with Rand's philosophy by the end of their teenage years (I think I was done with it shortly after 1998), but it is useful to keep in mind what this is all about. Mallon offers a depiction of the modern Objectivism movement (such as it is), coupled with a scathing critique of Rand-as-author.

Flesh of Your Flesh (by Elizabeth Kolbert)
Kolbert takes on the topic of vegetarianism in this review of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. This strikes me an honest and clear treatment of the issue. After describing various arguments for and against eating animals (and they way they are treated), Kolbert offers this summary:
Foer’s position is that all such arguments are, finally, bogus. We eat meat because we like to, and we devise justifications afterward. “Almost always, when I told someone I was writing a book about ‘eating animals,’ they assumed, even without knowing anything about my views, that it was a case for vegetarianism,” he says. “It’s a telling assumption, one that implies not only that a thorough inquiry into animal agriculture would lead one away from eating meat, but that most people already know that to be the case.” What we know about eating animals is that we don’t want to know. Although he never explicitly equates “concentrated animal feeding operations” with the Final Solution, the German model of at once seeing and not seeing clearly informs Foer’s thinking. The book is framed by tales of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whose culinary repertoire consists of a single dish: roast chicken with carrots.

Rap Sheet (by Jill Lepore)
Why is the rate of homicide higher in the US than in Europe? There isn't a clear answer to this, but Lepore's article offers an interesting window into the history or murder in America.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Review: August: Osage County

August: Osage County is a very good play. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony, it has received great reviews, and is the rare play with a successful national tour. The tour, staring Estelle Parsons as family matriarch Violet Weston, is really top notch. The Saturday afternoon performance I attended at the Paramount Theatre was packed (to my regret, as I had a partially obstructed view) and filled with laughter. It's cliched to say, but the 3 hour play (two intermissions!) seemed to fly by. The pacing seemed nearly perfect.

In some ways there is not really anything very special about this play. The topic--a dysfunctional family, with secretes and affairs and drug problems brought together and torn apart by some tragedy--doesn't exactly break novel ground.

But, the execution is spot on. The dialogue is snappy yet realistic enough featuring angered and hurt and vulnerable characters spewing forth the lines we wished we could ourselves say. The subject matter is rather dark, with some revelations at the end appearing without support. Despite this, the play is deeply funny without seeming cheap. A real audience-pleaser

When simply diagrammed out the plot seems one step above a sitcom. Yet it is hard to imagine a better representation of the form. This treatment of the American family and the changing of generations will be read and performed and written about for many years to come.

One can already imagine the English class essays to be written by future generations of students analyzing what this play says about the Greatest Generation, of Native American's and the white middle class of the 1990s, of parents' relationships to drugs and alcohol and their children's use of the same, of the peoples perceptions about the nature of love and affairs and sex and age and childhood, and what, exactly, it means to be from the great plains of the central United States.

The problem is not that those course essays will be written, but that they will be too easy to write. The themes and symbols and references of the play are systematically laid out for all to see without nuance or real introspection.

I'll reiterate: this play doesn't break new artistic or thematic ground. It didn't even make me think deeply about anything. But, that is ok. Better than ok, really. It is an excellently crafted example of a familiar form. Perhaps a real modern-classic. If this tour happens to be nearby then definitely go see it.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The Atlantic November 2009

Selected thoughts on the November 2009 issue of The Atlantic:

Seeing Too Much (by Jamais Cascio)
Cascio discusses "augmented reality" technologies and worries that such technologies will lead to increased cultural tribalism: only interacting with people with similar political beliefs or only going to restaurants or places highly rated by your "group". I'm not sure that technology is really playing a role in driving this. Much has been written elsewhere about The Big Sort in American life.

Shots In The Dark (by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer)
Brownlee and Lenzer take a contrarian position on a contentious topic. The release of Superfreakonomics has provoked a lot of discussion about contrarianism recently (see, eg, here, here, and here for three takes on the issue). Instead of climate change or drunk-driving, Brownlee and Lenzer take on the efficacy of the influenza vaccine. They begin their article with the breathless prose that is emblematic of calculated contrarian analysis:
But what if everything we think we know about fighting influenza is wrong? What if flu vaccines do not protect people from dying—particularly the elderly, who account for 90 percent of deaths from seasonal flu? And what if the expensive antiviral drugs that the government has stockpiled over the past few years also have little, if any, power to reduce the number of people who die or are hospitalized? The U.S. government—with the support of leaders in the public-health and medical communities—has put its faith in the power of vaccines and antiviral drugs to limit the spread and lethality of swine flu. Other plans to contain the pandemic seem anemic by comparison. Yet some top flu researchers are deeply skeptical of both flu vaccines and antivirals. Like the engineers who warned for years about the levees of New Orleans, these experts caution that our defenses may be flawed, and quite possibly useless against a truly lethal flu. And that unless we are willing to ask fundamental questions about the science behind flu vaccines and antiviral drugs, we could find ourselves, in a bad epidemic, as helpless as the citizens of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.
There are some good points raised in the article, but I'm not sure they are as revolutionary as made out. For example, vaccines work by inducing an immune response in the recipient so that if, in the future, the individual is exposed to the real pathogen their body is set up to fight it off. This, of course, means that for the vaccine to work the individual being vaccinated must have a robust enough immune system for this response to be initiated. To confirm this, in some cases (such as among health workers), an analysis is done after vaccine administration to determine the person's antibody titer and confirm that a sufficient immune response was initatied. This means, of course, that those individual most at risk for the flu--people with weakened immune systems--are also those individuals for whom the vaccine is least likely to be completly effective. This is why those who work or live with individuals at risk are themselves encouraged to get the seasonal flu shot in an effort to limit risk of passing the infection on.

An strong critique of the article has been offered over at the Effect Measure blog. In the comments, there is long response from Brownlee and Lenzer. This is worth checking out, I think it illustrates one of the main problems: the conflation of shallow evidence of vaccine efficacy in the elderly with the usefulness of a general vaccination program in the face of a global pandemic. This stance is unfortunate.

Additionally, I am slightly disappointed that Brownlee and Lenzer did not put their article in the context of the growing opt-out rate for childhood vaccines--a problem which is starting to lead to out-breaks for such old fashioned ailments as Measles. I fear that the anti-Vaccine movement will be fortified by this article.

There is a detailed discussion of additional flu vaccine issues at Science-Based Medicine. It is worth reading.

Brave Thinkers
The cover feature this month is a brief profile of 27 people who may be responsible for ideas which will 'upend the established order.' I find such list-based articles rather unsatisfying. The article does not really tell you enough about any of the ideas promulgated by these people to form an opinion. Plus, the colored backgrounds used in the magazine for this piece made the text hard to read in the low-light environments I often end up trying to read in (a bit nit-picky, yes I admit).

The Devil's in the Details (by Benjamin Schwarz)
I have been watching Mad Men recently, so Schwarz's piece on the show to be very timely. Schwarz's includes a thoughtful discussion of the trend toward more literary, 'megamovie' television series. The review points out the glaring errors in the otherwise nearly-fetish level realism of the show, and I feel correctly points out Betty Draper as the most problematic of the characters.

Review: The Believers

The Believers, written and directed by Jim Bovino and currently playing at the ANNEX Theatre, is a flawed play. It tries to say something high-minded about the nature of our own control over our lives. In stead, is just sort of shuffles along from one unconnected scene to another. That could work, but in this case it doesn't. At times, the actors are speaking directly to the audience, but it is never made clear what is really going on. Later, some of hidden meaning are illustrated in a heavy-handed way with a literal roll of the dice.

I think this play is trying too hard. My advice: master the basics first. Then experiment.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Review: The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton, is not a Victorian novel. It was written in 1905. By an American. I continue to be surprised by how quickly Victorian social norms appear to have changed. Wharton's novel focuses on the life and loves of Lily Bart, a New Yorker socialite who has manged to get married yet. She is beautiful. And graceful, with a keen sense of style. And, mostly vacuous with out any real skills or ability to get by own her own. Of course, that is the way she was brought up, so it is unfair to blame her to much. Mostly, though, this struck me us a book for about women and their relationships. This is particularly so in the descriptions of Bart's own awareness of her tactical flirtations.

I enjoyed the story, but I'm not sure it left any deep or lasting impressions. It does offer a great sense of the society of the time, and the changing nature of the era. I see the points that Wharton was trying to make about social mores and the circumscribed roles for women, but think those lessons are better described elsewhere.

Selected thoughts on The New Yorker October 19 2009

Selected thoughts on the 19 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Mail
(Susan Butler)
In regards to the previous story about Amelia Earhart, Butler offers a reminder not to impose our modern prejudices onto the past. Butler argues against over-interpretation of Earhart's sexuality.

Talk of The Town: You've Got Mail (by Lizzie Widdicombe)

Widdicombe jumps off from the Letterman blackmail story to raise an interesting point: why is it illegal to threaten to do something that is, itself, legal.

Talk of The Town: Scratch and Sniff (by Ian Frazier)
Frazier writes an interesting report on the New Jersey Department of Correction's use of dogs trained to smell and detect cell phones. Interesting that there is, apparently, such a specific smell.

The Secret Keeper (by William Finnegan)
This article is an interesting example of a great New Yorker archetype: a detailed, intriguing, largely complimentary profile of an individual which, at the end, drops some less than complimentary information about the subject that leaves you wondering who the real person is. The subject this time is Jules Kroll, the former head of a detective agency focused on corporate intelligence. The offers a peak into a world that I generally don't give a lot of thought to. Kroll comes across very positively. Then, about 2/3 of the way through the piece, Finnegan relates the involvement of Kroll's firm with R. Allen Stanford (recall this from TPM).

Offensive Play (by Malcolm Gladwell)
Say what you will about Gladwell (and lots of people have much to say), but his articles don't fail to be engaging and interesting. This time, Gladwell discusses the risks of football to the long-term health of its players, particularly in terms of brain damage caused by repeated head trauma. Gladwell's narrative alternates back and forth with a discussion of dog-fighting. The reason for this inclusion is clear, but not really necessary. There is a lot to recommend in this piece. I was also heartened to read about the protein Tau in the New Yorker, and to learn what former Brown's coach Butch Davis is up to now.

The main thrust of the claim is that brain damage is not an unfortunate, and potentially avoidable, risk for football players. Rather, it is an intrinsic, expected, and routine result of the game. Is this true? It seems that a case could be made, and the importance of the adjacency of individual players choosing to play must be considered. This is piece if freely available online. The dog-fighting comparison may be a little too easy, but I recommend reading it.

The Gossip Mill (by Rebecca Mead)
This piece is a very good depiction of Alloy Entertainment and how novels for teens are manufactured. Manufactured is the right word--ideas and plots are fleshed out in conference rooms. The writing is farmed out (sometimes without credit to the 'real' author). Commercial concerns are paramount. The method doesn't produce groundbreaking literature. But, they know how to give readers what they want. Worth thinking about for anyone with thoughts about producing art or other cultural products.

The Defiant Ones (by Daniel Zalewski)
A New Yorker article about the nature of contemporary parenting, and the mores reflected in popular children's picture books. It is hard to imagine a more rarefied target audience. I found this article undefinably interesting.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Selected thoughts on The New Yorker October 12 2009

Selected thoughts on the 12 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Mail: Crime and Punishment
(by Adam David Cole)
Cole, a former public defender, writes in about the recent story about the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham. His frank account is jarring; I hope it isn't true:
It touches on things most people find hard to believe: once you’re accused of a crime, you are actually guilty until proved innocent (and sometimes the presumption of guilt is so strong that it actually overrides compelling evidence of innocence); police, witnesses, and experts often lie, fudge, cover up, or do an inexcusably poor job (as do even some defense attorneys, sadly); prosecutors routinely vilify a defendant just to get a conviction; even family members turn away in shame. Maybe Willingham’s case is easy to write off as exceptional, but those of us who have worked in criminal defense know that it has elements similar to every case we’ve worked on.

(by James P.M. Paquette)
Paquette, follows up with a reminder that we should not conflate distinct issues by putting the condemned on pedestals. Paquette's opposition to the death penalty has nothing to do with a naive understanding of the character of criminals. As Coates said, opposition does not come from love for the condemned.

Inconspicuous Consumption (by James Surowiecki)
Surowiecki doesn't believe that the economic crises will lead to any fundamental change in patterns of savings and consumption. I agree.

Searching for Trouble (by Ken Auletta)
The rise of Google to near total dominance when it comes to managing information online is rather remarkable. Here, Auletta explores the nature of how Google makes money (advertising), how the company is managed, and the challenges and opportunities it faces in the future. More interesting, Aueletta offers profiles of the founders and leaders in the company, how they interact and manage.

This is an interesting article. One point to highlight: the major advancement that Google's tools provide precise information to advertisers about the effectiveness of their ads. Thus, companies know exactly what those ad's are worth, and pay for them accordingly. The suggestion that the ads that have/continue to sustain other media (print, television) are sold at drastically inflated prices.

The Pay Problem (by David Owen)
Owen offers his take on the excesses of CEO compensation. The article is mainly a profile of Nell Minow, a co-founder of the research form The Corporate Library. Minow offers up several examples of tells in contracts or compensation packages that indicate trouble at a company.

The Secrete Cycle (by Nick Paumgarten)
Lots of people see patterns that aren't really there in large data sets. This is especially true when it comes to stock prices. Many of the people are crazy, and, based on Paumgarten's profile, it seems that Martin Armstrong fits the bill.

Inside the Crises (by Ryan Lizza)
Lizza continues The New Yorker's excellent coverage of the response to the economic crises in this intriguing profile of Lawrence Summers. Summers, of course, is the brilliant economist, former Treasury Secretary, former Harvard president (remember his provocations on the under-representation of women in science and engineering?), and current Obama adviser and director of the National Economic Council.

There are several great quotes and anecdotes in here. Summers has a famously abrasive personality. He has fallen asleep in meetings (even in front of Obama). Like many protagonists, it seems like he was almost born to play the role he is currently playing in helping to direct policy and navigate through the economic meltdown. This piece is well worth reading. It offers insight into Summers the man, as well as the nature of government policy and the economic challenges that lie ahead.

Not So Fast (by Jill Lepore)
Lepore relates the interesting history of the birth of "scientific management"--the idea that worker's actions can be measured and timed and plotted to be made more efficient. Apparently "business consultants" have always been selling advice of dubious value. Lepore reviews a recent book on the topic, as well as offering larger context. This paragraph pretty much sums up the whole field:
About half of “The Management Myth” is an exposé of management consulting (the emperor has no clothes); the rest is Stewart’s exploration of his erstwhile profession’s checkered past (the emperor never did), although the kind of business book people have been buying for, oh, the past half century is instruction (you, too, can be an emperor!).
It is slightly more complicated than that pithy summary suggests. Lepore goes on to describe that there were (and are), in fact, inefficiencies and rooms for improvement. Also, she explores the effect all this had on the quality of life for the workers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker October 5 2009

Selected thoughts on the 5 October 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Rational Irrationality (by John Cassidy)
Cassidy offers another interesting article about the big-picture roots of the 2008 economic melt down. Like others, this piece gets at the larger questions of how economies work:
A number of explanations have been proposed for the great boom and bust, most of which focus on greed, overconfidence, and downright stupidity on the part of mortgage lenders, investment bankers, and Wall Street C.E.O.s. According to a common narrative, we have lived through a textbook instance of the madness of crowds. If this were all there was to it, we could rest more comfortably: greed can be controlled, with some difficulty, admittedly; overconfidence gets punctured; even stupid people can be educated. Unfortunately, the real causes of the crisis are much scarier and less amenable to reform: they have to do with the inner logic of an economy like ours. The root problem is what might be termed “rational irrationality”—behavior that, on the individual level, is perfectly reasonable but that, when aggregated in the marketplace, produces calamity.
Examples that Cassidy gives include the issuing of subprime mortgages, of buying into a bubble, the one-upmanship nature of competition among finance firms, and the short term nature of incentives on Wall Street. A year after the height of the crises meaningful regulatory change appears increasingly unlikely. Listen to the hybrids: this has all happened before and it will all happen again.

Veiled Threat (by Anonymous)
This piece explores the role played by women in the ongoing protests in Iran. It is quite remarkable. Reading the piece reminds me that the unrest in Iran has not gone away. Interesting times indeed.

Fiasco (by Alex Ross)
It seems that every self-regarding theatre goer laments the ubiquitous standing ovation. It is in that vein that I'm joyed by Ross's recounting of the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Tosca. Not because I'm glad to read about a bad production staged, but because it is reassuring to now that, even in the most rarefied circles, some are willing to admit the obvious.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: Roméo et Juliette

Pacific Northwest Ballet has been a roll lately. Their recent Stranger Genius Award seems deserved. I had high expectations for this production of Jean-Christophe Maillot's Roméo et Juliette. The show was nearly sold out, and I was not disappointed.

There is nothing as singly intense as the pas de deux from After The Rain, but the entire evening was engrossing. It was funny (puppets in the street!), and tragic, and seductive. The stage backdrop was minimalist, featuring effective use of light and shadow. This put the focus where it should be: on the dancers. Particularly, on Carla Körbes and Lucien Postlewaite as the leads and Karel Cruz as Friar Laurence. Körbes's Juliet was more coy than I remembered from Shakespear, but it worked very well. I've gained a new appreciation for ballet fight scenes-- better than a Dr. Seuss fight.

It was beautiful. I'm looking forward to PNB's next production.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Selected thoughts on the Atlantic October 2009

Selected thoughts on the October 2009 edition of The Atlantic:

Why Goldman Always Wins (by Megan McArdle)
McArdle makes an interesting point about how those that broker 'one shot deals' can demand such high fees. The analogy with paying a lot of money for a voice over on a movie trailer seems apt.

The Story Behind The Story (by Mark Bowden)
Disecting the media roll-out around Sonia Sotomajor's nomination, Bowden conducts a recounting of our modern media environment, and sheds light on how things really work. This piece reminded me a lot of points made recently by Dan Carlin on his Common Sense podcast. Namely, the motivaiton for news media to copy stories pushed by external groups (or other news entities) rather than offer their own in depth reporting. Bowden powers through a number of points, rising up to this rhetorical ode to journalism:
In this post-journalistic world, the model for all national debate becomes the trial, where adversaries face off, representing opposing points of view. We accept the harshness of this process because the consequences in a courtroom are so stark; trials are about assigning guilt or responsibility for harm. There is very little wiggle room in such a confrontation, very little room for compromise—only innocence or degrees of guilt or responsibility. But isn’t this model unduly harsh for political debate? Isn’t there, in fact, middle ground in most public disputes? Isn’t the art of politics finding that middle ground, weighing the public good against factional priorities? Without journalism, the public good is viewed only through a partisan lens, and politics becomes blood sport.
The Moguls' New Clothes (by Jonathan A Knee, Bruce C. Greenwalkd, and Ava Seave)
This trio of authors explains how and why major media companies have been and likely will continue to be unprofitable. This is an intriguing piece of contrarian analysis. At least, it goes against what seems to be the common MBA perspective on growth and success.

Dear President Bush (by Andrew Sullivan)
I don't really have much to say about Sullivan's piece. You should read his blog. If for some reason you don't, then check out this piece. Behind the conceit of the concept, there is a sobering recounting of the torture and other crimes that were committed in our name.

Cheap Laughs (by Christopher Hitchens)
Hitchens doesn't think highly of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. And has decidedly mixed feelings about Al Franken--a comedian who is falsely claims to be a satirist. Hitchens's close reading of one of Franken's books is wonderful. I don't watch the show any more, but do appreciate the infotainment nature of its character.

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker September 28

Selected thoughts on the 28 September 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Read all about it (by Adam Gopnik)
Gopnik poses a somewhat sobering hypothetical in this talk of the town piece:
The new book is, as every speed-reading reviewer has noted, the same package as before—the wise if wooden professor, the cagey babe-scientist, the oft-naked assassin, and the ancient conspiracy newly brought to life in familiar tourist destinations, this time in Washington, D.C., rather than Paris, and turning on elusive Masonic mystics, rather than secretive Merovingian dynasts. But what, exactly, is inside the package? What spell does it cast and how does it cast it? Books are not so widely read without a reason. Surely future historians will look to Brown as an index of What We Were Really Thinking, and, turning the dense and loaded pages of his books, they may well ask, This they read for fun?

Gopnik ends up with an interesting contrast between the "sweet-tempered" conspiracy theories of Dan Brown style fiction and the hard edged, disturbing tenor of the proponents of real life conspiracy theories.

Ratings Downgrade (by James Surowiecki)
Surowiecki raises an important point about the role played by the ratings agencies our financial system. Ratings agencies are paid by those they rate, have quasi-government sanctionend monopolies, and many investors are legally oblicagted to only place thier money in holdings that obtain the agencies seal of approval. Also, as is now clear, the ratings were often nonsensical, and opaque. I fear that this is one of those situations when there is a clear reform that is politically impossible to implement.

The Last Mission (by George Packer)
Packer offers an interesting profile of Richard Holbrooke. This piece weaves together a recounting of Holbrooke's career with the current situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a precarious situation for which Holbrooke is now the United States's chief diplomat. This is the basic claim: Afghanistan is not like Vietnam or Iraq because it actually is important tothe country's national security interests to win there.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker Sept ember 21

Selected thoughts on the 21 September 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Bench Press (by Jeffrey Toobin)
Toobin explores President Obama's choices for judicial appointments and asks whether his judges are really liberal. As a judicial realist, this is a topic of great concern to me. However, I think I also agree with the position (clearly held by Obama, and part of the reason he left the law and entered politics), that in general social change should come from political change, not legal fiat. This position, of course, is complicated by fealty to minority rates and a misplaced idealism in the enduring liberties guaranteed by the constitution.

Toobin's article largely focuses on Justice Sonya Sotomayor, her legal philosophy, and the politics around the confirmation process. It does, however, also get into more abstract question of judicial philosophy and what it means to be a 'liberal' in this age.

Eight Days (by James Stewart)
In this remarkable piece, Steward reconstructs the hour-by-hour narrative of what happened during the week in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and the global financial system ground to a halt. It is unfortunate that the piece is only available to subscribers since this narrative is a must-read addition to our understanding of the (ongoing?) financial crises. There is some discussion of why and what, but the piece essentially is a reconstruction of what happened and when.

The hour-by-hour account is remarkably compelling, especially when one considers that it is mostly about conference calls and coffee-fueled meetings between bankers and CEOs. It focuses on the negotiations between Hank Paulson, the Secretary of the Treasury, Ben Benanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, Timothy Geithner, then president of the New York Federal Reserve, and various players in the financial world (Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, etc). The drama and the stakes are huge--even without mention of Obama and McCain and the ongoing presidential campaign (with McCain's suspension, and their White House meeting with President Bush at the height of the crises).

Paulson comes out very well in the narrative. Stewart presents his decision to guarantee the money market funds as being key to holding the system together after Reserve Management Company broke the buck. The depressing thing is that it seems that nothing fundamental is really going to change with the way the system is run. And, more so, our the hard-won knowledge of how the system works is going to be left by the way-side.

Like many, over the past 18 months I have struggled to understand how the financial system works, and how it had gotten broken. The number of excellent articles and radio programs and blogs about this topic is quite remarkable. Stewart's narrative is a very welcome addition to this growing body of reporting and explanation.

It Happened One Decade (by Caleb Crain)
Crain reflects on how the Great Depression impacted the arts in literature in America. One of the basic questions is what does it mean to make art (particularly if you were fortunate enough to be paid for it) in a time of great economic suffering?

Review: Anathem

Anathem, Neal Stephenson's latest novel, was a book I couldn't put down. But, really, I'm totally the perfect demographic for this type of novel. And I eat them up with glee. I love grandiose, epic novels which create a whole, distinct universe to play around in. So much the better then when that universe is packed with allusions and references to specific topics (particularly in science, math, and philosophy) which I'm already enamored with. I totally got sucked into Stephenson's world of Arbre. I kept thinking about the characters, the arguments, and the deeper meanings. I started using terms Stephenson invented for this world, and have contemplated what lessons I can apply to my own existence.

I'm not going to spell out the plot in detail. There are plenty of other reviews (eg, here, here, here )to check out if you want more background and a bit of a spoiler. My opinions are clear: Stephenson is awesome. Anathem is awesome. You should read it.

Review: The Informant!

I didn't expect The Informant! to be a comedy. I should have payed more attention to the exclamation point--the movie definitly has a comic sensibility. Matt Damon's portrayal of Marc Whitacre was excellent. This is the type of story that is so absurd it has to be true--otherwise no one would be ever believe it. And, of course, the story of Whitacre, ADM, the FBI, and multiple levels of lies and self-deception is true.

This remarkable story is told in a book (The Informant -- no !) by Kurt Eichenwald. Eichenwald's reporting was the basis for a 2000 episode of This American Life which was re-aired last weekend. I saw the movie before listening to the pod-cast. I can imagine that the experience is rather different depending on how familiar you are with the story.

I found the movie to be entertaining, but thought that the points raised by the This American Life episode were more thoughtful. The film gets the point of the basic absurdity of the situation (the lying informant) across clearly, and also illustrates the banal nature of corporate malfeasance. But I'm more intrigued by the questions raised of how to define price fixing, how to prove it, and how beholden we are to large corporations.

This is a movie worth seeing--the story is intriguing, the casting seems spot on (even Scott Bakula), and the portrayal of early/mid-1990s technology and fashion is an added bonus.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Selected Thoughts on the New Yorker September 14

Selected thoughts on the 14 September 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Zoo York (by Lauren Collins)
Times Square was crazy last time I was there. I think blocking off traffic could make a lot of sense. I'm curious to check it out again.

Inflated Fears (by James Surowiecki)
Fear of inflation really is persistent. It would be interesting to read more about why some people get hung up on this concern. But, I think there is a lot of muddled thinking out there when it comes to economics. My thinking is far from clear, but I think I'm begging to grasp the contours of the issue.

Road Show (by Anthony Lane)
Lane reflects on the meaning of Robert Frank's 1950s photographs of America. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently showing an exhibit about the photographs and The New Yorker has put up a selected slide show that is worth checking out. One of the most interesting aspects of this article is the questions about the realness in interpretation of art and the meaning and agenda frozen by a photographer's choice of a specific frame:
Again, it is worth consulting the relevant contact strip: fourteen shots of the same woman, at least half of them catching her in the act of a smile—a polite gesture adopted for those riding beside her, you might say, but then professional courtesy is no less a national trait than the ruefulness on which Frank preferred to focus. For every little ole lonely girl, there will have been a dozen young elevator operators as perky and unslumped as Shirley MacLaine in “The Apartment” (1960), fending off the office demons and fighting down their disappointments. Such is one definition of “The Americans”: a sheaf of stills from a film that was never made—or a film that was made but never released, after the studio heads, examining a rough cut, discovered that every scene had been shot at just the wrong time, when the smiles of the stars and the chatter of the extras had yet to kick in, or had already started to fade.
Missing Woman (by Judith Thurman)
I guess I've never really known much about Amelia Earhart. Thurman reviews several recent books about her and is somewhat less than impressed:
Earhart was saintlike only as a martyr to her own ambition, who became an object of veneration and is periodically resurrected—her unvarnished glamour, like a holy man’s body, still miraculously fresh. Embraced by feminists, she was featured on a 1976 cover of Ms., which promised a story “BETTER THAN THE MYTH.” Read closely, however, Earhart’s life is, in part, the story of a charismatic dilettante who lectured college girls about ambition yet never bothered to earn a degree.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Review: The Creation of the World and Other Business

Arthur Miller's The Creation of the World and Other Business is an imperfect play. I agree with much of Clive Barnes's original review of the show from 1972. Theater Schmeater's production, which in many ways is very good, cannot overcome the problems of the play's structure. The second act drags on. The show picks up in the middle of the third act, but the ending seems to linger a little too long. This would be fine if the final scenes offered some weighty or intriguing questions to ponder, but I left the theater with little to wonder about.

This is all a bit of a let down following the quality of the first act. The portrayal of Adam and Eve by Heather Roberts and Matthew Middleton is spot on in the first act. Their naked and unselfconscious naivete in the time before sin is absolutely convincing.

It is difficult to judge this show; it is an excellent production of a not very good play. The result is unsatisfying, but it is hard to imagine a better performance.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker September 7

Selected thoughts on the 7 September 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Return of the Native (by Adam Gopnik)
Apparently, Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, is likely to become the next Primer Minister. I say apparently because, and I'm confident that I'm not alone on this, I am shamefully ignorant of Canadian politics. Gopnik's profile of Ignatieff--a writer and professor who lived abroad many years before returning to Canada and entering politics--offers an interesting portrayal of the person who is potentially the next leader of that country. More impressively, Gopnik gives a textured description of Canadian politics, and, in a way, what it means to be a Canadian.

First, Ignatieff the man. He says that being a politician is the hardest job he's had. You always have to be on. What you say and how you say it matters. Politics is combative. Ignatieff's family history seems to be both a benefit and a drawback, depending on the constituency.

Gopnik argues that the essential tension in Canadian politics is reflected in the question of collective versus individual rights:
Every country has an obscure theoretical dispute--in America, about the moment when human life beings; in France, about the proper meaning of the term laïcité--that crystallizes some of its deepest preoccupations and, in turn, becomes a code for its practical politics. Where you fall on the question of collective versus individual rights has specific consequences in Canada; the Quebec nationalists, for instance, would be more likely to remain in Canada if they could suppress any renaissance of the Anglophone community in Montreal, and the next Primer Minister will have to decide where he stands on that--and then where he stands on guarantees for the huge French-speaking minority outside Quebec. And, in a country that prides itself on being a mosaic rather than a melting pot, just how sealed off from the rest of the country can an immigrant group remain without violating some basic pact about citizenship?
No doubt in some cases Gopnik over-simplifies. But, at least now, I feel as I have at least a foot hold on topic I can use to hang onto other articles in the future. The depiction of the changes required of Ignatieff the politician seems, however, universal to all in that vocation.

Trail by Fire (by David Grann)
I heard about this article before I had a chance to read it. Grann lays out a convincing argument that an innocent man in Texas (Todd Willingham) was executed for a crime he did not commit. The supposed crime was an arson that killed Todd's three children. I knew what this piece was about, but was still gripped by it.

Grann begins by recounting the "accepted" narrative of what happened. Willingham is far from a sympathetic figure, and the investigators sound quite confident of what happened. The weave a compelling story. However, Grann then relates the systematic toppling of the evidence in favor of the arson. The conclusion is startling:
In mid-August, the noted fire scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired by the commission, completed his investigation. In a scathing report, he concluded that investigators in the Willingham case had no scientific basis for claiming that the fire was arson, ignored evidence that contradicted their theory, had no comprehension of flashover and fire dynamics, relied on discredited folklore, and failed to eliminate potential accidental or alternative causes of the fire. He said that Vasquez’s approach seemed to deny “rational reasoning” and was more “characteristic of mystics or psychics.” What’s more, Beyler determined that the investigation violated, as he put it to me, “not only the standards of today but even of the time period.” The commission is reviewing his findings, and plans to release its own report next year. Some legal scholars believe that the commission may narrowly assess the reliability of the scientific evidence. There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the “execution of a legally and factually innocent person.”
Let that sink in. Legally and factually innocent. An odd turn of phrase for such a horrible thing. In the death penalty debates we often hear about the costs and length of appeals. Tough on crime politicians pound the podium and make stern speeches about legal loop-holes and special rights for defendants. One of the many angering things about this piece is that, apparently, the final clemency panel in Texas never even read the report that seems to have solidly undermined the forensic evidence in support of the finding of arson. Really. They didn't read the report:
The Innocence Project obtained, through the Freedom of Information Act, all the records from the governor’s office and the board pertaining to Hurst’s report. “The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government,” Barry Scheck said. “The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor’s office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence.”

LaFayette Collins, who was a member of the board at the time, told me of the process, “You don’t vote guilt or innocence. You don’t retry the trial. You just make sure everything is in order and there are no glaring errors.” He noted that although the rules allowed for a hearing to consider important new evidence, “in my time there had never been one called.” When I asked him why Hurst’s report didn’t constitute evidence of “glaring errors,” he said, “We get all kinds of reports, but we don’t have the mechanisms to vet them.” Alvin Shaw, another board member at the time, said that the case didn’t “ring a bell,” adding, angrily, “Why would I want to talk about it?” Hurst calls the board’s actions “unconscionable.”
Coates (who has had several remarkable posts on this and related topics) links to a recent editorial from the lead prosecutor recounting the evidence in support of Willingham's guilt. Go and read his editorial. His arguments strike me as one last wall of dissonance protecting himself from acknowledging the role he played in killing a (potentially? likely? almost certainly? legally and factually?) innocent person. Such an argument--from a judge!--is shamefully distressing.

Grann's entire article is available free online. Go read it.

Bootylicious (by Caleb Crain)
Crain visits an often fascinating topic: the ethics of certain criminal organizations, specifically pirates. This article was an enjoyable read.

Selected Links: September 7

Selected Links and Thoughts 7 September 2009:

Inside Apple's OS X 10.6
James Fallows pointed to an interesting article by John Siracusa about Apple's newest operating system. The article is substantial; after some opening discussion about marketing it jumps into technical details about the design of the operating system. I'm not an Apple user, but I was fascinated by this article. I'm particularly excited by the the potential of the Grand Central Dispatch framework. This is a framework that permits the easy parallelization of blocks of code in order to take better advantage of multi-core processes. Writing programs that can correctly run concurrently is notoriously difficult--something is of no surprise to anyone who has ever dined with multiple philosophers. GCD doesn't really remove the problems inherit in concurrent process management. Rather, it offers an extremely friendly syntax that identifies program blocks that the operating system may send off to different threads at run time. The hope seems to be that without the pain of POSIX threads developers will make better using of multiple threads. I highly recommend Siracusa's article. It is a wonderful example of technical writing.

How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?
In this New York Times Magazine piece, Paul Krugman offers an analysis of academic reactions to the recent (ongoing?) economic collapse. There have been many wonderful articles and radio programs explaining what exactly happened last fall, and why. Here, Krugman offers a more academic perspective in terms of deep rooted divides among academic economists and the seductive power of beautiful but ultimately unreal models:
As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations. The renewed romance with the idealized market was, to be sure, partly a response to shifting political winds, partly a response to financial incentives. But while sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at, the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation.
In the article Krugman touches on many topics. His short description of the lessons learned from a baby-sitting coop reminds me to link to his wonderful description of the problem and economics. The anecdote is essentially an introduction to macroeconomics. After working through the implications of the story you will have a much clearer understanding of the economy.

Krugman also references Larry Summers's paper on Ketchup Economics. Don't confuse this with Malcolm Gladwell's classic article about ketchup. The Summers's paper, from the 1980s, has gotten a fair amount of attention in the blog world recently. As Krugman describes, Summers's basic point is that internal consistency in a model does not mean that the model actual says anything meaningful or true about the world.

Krugman's piece recounts a brief history of macroeconomic thought, described divides in the academic community and summarizes what happened last fall. Over the past 18 months I feel as if we are all economists now. This article is a worthy addition to the must read stack when it comes to understanding what is going on.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Civil War
Coates, the newest addition to the blogger lineup at the Atlantic, has been producing writing that I look forward to reading. His series of posts on the US Civil War over the past few months have been remarkable. Long-form, high-quality, and challenging writing on a blog. Wonderful.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Selected Thoughts on the New Yorker August 31

Selected thoughts on the 31 August 2009 issue of The New Yorker:

The Mail (Marshall W. Carter)
Carter highlights an inportant point about To Kill a Mocking Bird: Atticus is often speaking to his children and is describing the world to them in terms they are able to grasp.

The Mail (Peter Kuryla)
Kuryla suggests an awkward truth: "American liberalism has often meant a certain squeamishness about the use of radical forms of direct action to achieve goals, however noble they might be." How much truth is in this statement, and how unfortunate is such a conclusion?

The Iran Show (Laura Secor)
What do forced confessions really accomplish? Secor's description of show trials in Iran is a nice compliment the This American Life segment that featured Omid Memarian.

Status-quo Anxiety (by James Surowiecki)
Intellectually, I'm familiar with the finding that humans tend to be risk averse and overestimate potential loses while underestimating potential gains. Knowing this doesn't change how I act though.

The Rubber Room (by Steven Brill)
Another article that compliments a This American Life segment. The utter weirdness of the place makes for a great radio narrative. Brill offers a bit more of a context as to the why and how of the situation. The article is worth reading for anyone interested in the difficulties of dealing with entrenched interests and the complexities of any large bureaucracy. The teacher's union does not come out of Brill's depiction covered in glory.

The Perfect Match (by Burkhard Bilger)
Bob and Mike Bryan are identical twins who are a leading team in men's tennis doubles. Bilger's article is an enjoyable description of the merits of doubles tennis and the evolution of the sport. David Foster Wallace's writings on tennis, however, stick with me in a more engrossing manner.

Useless Beauty (by Nick Paumgarten)
Paumgarten describes the past, present, and potential future of Governors Island off the edge of Manhattan. The place seems utterly fascinating. I'm curious to see what happens to the island in the future.

Green Like Me (by Elizabeth Kolbert)
Kolbert links together the recent spate of books-about-a-blogger changing the world (or something) one day at a time. The focus is on 'eco-bloggers' who diary their daily attempts to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. The concept is tied in with Thoreau's time at Walden, and the limitations of both are laid totally bare in this take down:

The basic setup of No Impact Man is, by this point, familiar. During the past few years, one book after another has organized itself around some nouveau-Thoreauvian conceit. This might consist of spending a month eating only food grown in an urban back yard, as in “Farm City” (2009), or a year eating food produced on a gentleman’s farm, as in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” (2007). It might involve driving across the country on used cooking oil, as in “Greasy Rider” (2008), or giving up fossil fuels for goats, as in “Farewell, My Subaru” (2008).

All of these stunts can be seen as responses to the same difficulty. Owing to a combination of factors—population growth, greenhouse-gas emissions, logging, overfishing, and, as Beavan points out, sheer self-indulgence—humanity is in the process of bringing about an ecological catastrophe of unparalleled scope and significance. Yet most people are in no mood to read about how screwed up they are. It’s a bummer. If you’re the National Academy of Sciences or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the Pope or Al Gore, you can try to fight this with yet another multivolume report or encyclical. If not, you’d better get a gimmick.
This is an excellent article which I highly recommend.

God in the Quad (by James Wood)
Wood steps into the discussion about theology and the 'new atheism.' Sigh. I know. But this article was better than I expected. It is probably worth reading.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review: A Happy Marriage

One normally indicates that a novel is good by saying "I couldn't put it down." A Happy Marriage, by Rafael Ygelesias, accomplishes something more difficult and more lasting. I had to put it down after every three or four chapters. The content was too intense; I needed to process what I'd read before moving on.

A Happy Marraige is an autobiographical novel which reflects on the relationship between Ygelesias and his deceased wife Margaret. The novel unfolds by bouncing between the end of Margaret's struggle with cancer and of important points in their marriage, with a special focus on the first few days of their relationship with each other. I haven't read any of Ygelesias's prior novels (I have read the work of Matthew Ygelsias, his son). I wasn't sure what to expect from an autobiographical novel. It was unexpectedly raw, cutting, and unforgettable.

Margaret dies a modern death: full of tubes and medicine and sustained by a nutritious gruel which is pumped into her body. There are doctors and high-risk, experimental treatments but, cancer inexorably wins. The scary truth is that this is the type of death that likely awaits many of us. Such treatments both offer hope of a cure while also slowly grinding away at any aspect of life that is natural or enjoyable. The struggles between Margaret, Enrique (the persona of Ygelsias), and her doctors is quit compelling and reveals a great deal about their nature. Consider this interaction between her and her main oncologist in the hospital:
Margaret had fixed herself up for this audition. She had worked meticulously on her wig to make its replica of her short black hairdo seem as natural as possible, and she had pot on a pretty green floral skirt. She wore a white silk T-shirt smooth to her torso except for the bumps of the three access ports to the catheter installed above her right breast for TPN feedings and other intravenous medications. Her white teeth, bonded over twenty years ago into pretty and seamless proportions, shined a bold and cheerful smile at the Iraqi's stern countenance. "Because I was just being used as a guinea pig," she answered.

"So?" he scolded. "You have metastatic cancer. You're incurable. Your only chance to survive is to be a guinea pig."

"I don't mind being a guinea pig," she shot right back at him, aloft on an examination table, rocking her slim, pretty legs, like a girl on a swing, teasing the boys. "I mind being a guinea pig in a failed experiment."

"What do you mean--a failed experiment?" he said, pronouncing the phrase as if it were contemptible and possibly not English. "How could you know--?"

The story of the beginning of their relationship is absolutely convincing. Which is good, since it is a true story. Enrique's excited awkwardness coupled with his immediate recognition of his love for Margaret captures the tense and hopeful feelings at the start of any relationship. The reader knows how both stories will end: the get married, spend 30 years together, and then Margaret dies of cancer. This knowledge makes the many little suspenses achieved by the story more remarkable.

Through these two ends of a relationships, Ygelsias explores what it truly means to know a person, and to what extent you ever truly can. Ygelsias's depiction of his own happy marriage is heartbreaking, inspiring, disappointing, and real. It is has a powerful emotional punch and is filled with passages that must be digested slowly. I highly recommend this novel.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The Atlantic September 2009

Selected thoughts on the September 2009 issue of The Atlantic:

Save Yourself
(by Amanda Ripley)
In this dispatch, Ripley offers a short profile of Craig Fugate, the new director of FEMA. He seems like a no-nonsense fellow and a capable leader. Remember the 90s when they made movies about heroic FEMA managers and effective government management of complicated situations?

The 12:39 to Matanzas (by Michael Scott Moore)
Another travelogue that I found interesting. Here, Moore recounts a train ride he recently took in Cuba. It's not quite North Korea, but in many ways Cuba seems like the land time forgot. Why is the embargo still in place?

What Would Warren Do? (by Megan McArdle)
McCardle takes a trip to Omaha and reflects on Warren Buffet and the nature of his 'value investing' philosophy. It seems to boil down to patience, thrift, and personal discipline. The article would have been more engaging if it also wrestled with the conclusions explored by Jeffrey Golberg's article about investing from this past May. Trying to beet the system seems like a large part of the problem.

How American Health Care Killed My Father (by David Goldhill)
Goldhill, a business executive, offers a clear-eyed dissection of the individual incentives that operate in the US health care system and the odd results they inexorably lead to. Along with Atul Gawande's article about health care in the New Yorker, this article offers perspective and depth on this issue that is woefully lacking in other media outlets. Goldhill's claims are, at heart, depressing. He argues, convincingly I think, that a fundamental overhaul of the way health care if funded and managed is required. Nothing less will be effective. I'm not sure Goldhill's proposals are the best, but it doesn't matter--I more sure that nothing so radical has any chance of passing congress. Still, Goldhill has an interesting perspective and this article is well worth reading. Here is a taste of his seductively empowering analysis:
I’m a Democrat, and have long been concerned about America’s lack of a health safety net. But based on my own work experience, I also believe that unless we fix the problems at the foundation of our health system—largely problems of incentives—our reforms won’t do much good, and may do harm. To achieve maximum coverage at acceptable cost with acceptable quality, health care will need to become subject to the same forces that have boosted efficiency and value throughout the economy. We will need to reduce, rather than expand, the role of insurance; focus the government’s role exclusively on things that only government can do (protect the poor, cover us against true catastrophe, enforce safety standards, and ensure provider competition); overcome our addiction to Ponzi-scheme financing, hidden subsidies, manipulated prices, and undisclosed results; and rely more on ourselves, the consumers, as the ultimate guarantors of good service, reasonable prices, and sensible trade-offs between health-care spending and spending on all the other good things money can buy.
An Offer He Couldn't Refuse (by William D. Cohan)
In a griping recount of the events of last fall, Cohan recounts the last days of Merrill Lynch and the government arm twisting that occurred to persuade Bank of America to take it over. This article raises interesting questions about the true role for government in the financial system. Questions that haven't really gotten the attention they deserve.

Sons and Lovers (by Christopher Hitchens)
The story of Elizabeth and John Edwards, the tragedy of their son's death, their relationship, his carreer, the revelation of his affair, and Elizabeth's public persona is oddly compelling. Hitchens's review of Elizabeth Edwards's recently published memoir starts to make some sense of this all.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker August 24

Selected thoughts on the 24 August 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The States We're In (Hendrik Hertzberg)
In this Talk of the Town piece, Hertzberg describes the sorry state of affairs in California. It focuses on the proposal of a group called Repair California, to call a constitutional convention and have randomly chosen Californians write a new state constitution. Interesting idea.

The Wrong Guys (Jeffrey Toobin)
In the second Talk of the Town piece, Toobin talks about a group of four men (apparently) wrongly convicted of murder after a false confession. Stories such as this further shake one's faith in the system.

Laugh, Kookaburra (David Sedaris)
This entertaining essay focuses on a trip Sedaris took to Australia. This, as usual, is jsut a pretext for reflection on his childhood and current lot in life. Two ideas stick with me about this essay. First, the philosophy described by Pat (an Australian women who Sedaris knows):

Pat was driving, and as we passed the turnoff for a shopping center she invited us to picture a four-burner stove.

“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

This is a depressing outlook that I often hear. I wonder how true it is.

The second thing I'll note is Sedaris's depiction of the pose his father strikes:
We’d been at it for half an hour, when the door flung open. “What the hell is going on?” It was our father, one hand resting, teapot style, on his hip, and the other—what would be the spout—formed into a fist.
Plugged In (by Tad Friend)
Friend's article profiles Elon Musk of Tesla Motors and discusses the future of the electric car. I know that there are several in development, including from the major car companies. I hope I'm unduly pessimistic, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Review: Das Barbecü

To coincide with the Seattle Opera's production of Wagner's Ring Cycle (Der Ring des Nibelungen) ACT has staged Das Barbecü, a musical comedy based on Wagner's opera. The musical is campy and doesn't really make much sense on it's own. The action is set in Texas, and the actors adopt accents and hairdos in an ironic fashion.

The audience seemed to enjoy the production. Although there are some amusing set pieces, the show did not work for me. It isn't really a satire, the Texas setting is used as a convenient backdrop that flattens rather than textures the action, the songs are largely forgettable, and the scenes somewhat disconnected. On it's own, the musical is rather pointless. In context with the The Ring, it is a spoof without bite or insight.

Review: Cold Souls

Cold Souls, starring Paul Giamatti, is an enjoyable film. Spurred on by a New Yorker article and his agent, Giamatti relinquishes his soul for a time to focus on his work. Unfortunately, he gets tied up with a black-market Russian soul trading ring, and all kinds of unfortunate things happen. The film doesn't dwell on the ins out and outs of how the whole soul transferring works--which is probably for the best. I imagine the details are in the aforementioned New Yorker article. I'm left wondering how souls are effected by their time in others' bodies. At times the movie is slow and ponderous, but it was entertaining.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Review: The Voyage Out

The Voyage Out is the first novel Virginia Woolf published. It appeared in 1915 and is strikingly different from a Victorian novel. Much has been written about Woolf’s place in 20th century literature, but I was largely ignorant since this is the first of Woolf’s novels I’ve read.

There are three things I’d like to note about this novel: the characters’ inner dialogues, the depictions of femininity, and the ending. If you have not read this novel consider closing your browser and picking up the book before reading on.

The plot focuses on the emotional and intellectual development (I’m tempted to write ‘coming of age’) of Rachel Vinrace. The main tensions involve Rachel, her aunt Helen Ambrose, and two men they meet in South America, Terrence Hewet and St. John Hirst. Apparently, plot is more important in this novel than in Woolf’s later works. Still, to a large extent, the reader gets into the head of the characters. Woolf deals with emotion and motivation and inner voice in a strikingly modern way. It is difficult to overstate the contrast with 19th century novels. The characters seem human: complex, contradictory, and often unsure of themselves. The novel says something about the nature of emotion and desire and the need to feel something that is both difficult for me to articulate and hard to stop considering.

The story is basically about the relationships Rachel has with her friends, family, and potential suitors. But it is more than that makes it sound. The limitations and opportunities available to women, and the changing social and intellectual boundaries of women are confronted in a direct way. At times, it is clear that Woolf’s own thoughts are directly expressed by the characters. Consider this passage, which could not have appeared in a novel published 30 years earlier:

‘I’ve often walked along the streets where people live all in a row, and one house is exactly like another house, and wondered what on earth the woman were doing inside,’ he said. ‘Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all. There it was going on in the background, for all those thousands of years, this curious silent unrepresented life. Of course we’re always writing about women—abusing them, or jeering at them, or worshipping them; but it’s never come from women themselves. I believe we still don’t know in the least how they live, or what they feel, or what they do precisely. If one’s a man, the only confidences one gets are from young women about their love affairs. But the lives of women of forty, of unmarried women, of working women, of women who keep shops and bring up children, of women like your aunts or Mrs. Thornbury or Miss Allan—one knows nothing whatever about them. They won’t tell you. Either they’re afraid, or they’ve got a way of treating men. It’s the man’s view that’s represented, you see. Think of a railway train: fifteen carriages for men who want to smoke. Doesn’t it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I’d blow some one’s brains out. Don’t you laugh at us a great deal? Don’t you think it all a great humbug? You, I mean—how does it all strike you?’

All thoughts and actions of all of the female characters, particularly Helen, say something about the divergent ways women dealt with the reality of their situations.

The ending was surprising, but I think it is entirety appropriate. Rachel’s death puts a distinct hue on the rest of the novel—especially the discussions of love and happiness. A Dickens-like happily ever after ending simply would not do here. Rachel’s death is random, unexpected and totally disruptive. This seems real. How do Helen and Hewet deal with the aftermath? Life goes on for the living, but we can only imagine how they were changed by their experiences with Rachel. Similarly, how are we, the reader, changed by considering the possibilities and conclusions suggested by Woolf’s novel?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: District 9

When described, District 9 sounds dumb, but was actually a pretty good movie. I recommend seeing it and I agree with Jonah Spangenthal-Lee that District 9 is a "weirdly wonderful subversive science-fiction film.

The plot unwinds through a mix of live-action narration interspersed with cuts from a documentary that made about the events. Perhaps the perspective of the viewer (are we watching the events unfold in real time, or watching some news report after the fact?) is a bit unclear at times. But, overall it works. The 'big message' of the film may seem a bit overwrought, but there are aliens and explosions, and an interesting take on how aliens could be treated. The film isn't really about aliens though. Like the best fiction, it resonates not for what is said about them and then, but about us and now.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker August 10 and 17

Selected thoughts on the 10 and 17 August 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

The Courthouse Ring (by Malcolm Gladwell)
In this excellent article Gladwell revisits the character of Atticus Finch (from To Kill a Mockingbird) through the lens of James Folsom, the governor of Alabama in the 1950s. The main point is a discussion of the inability (or unwillingness) of nice, well meaning, privileged white men to see the true nature of the system of Jim Crow in the South. This essay, as the 50th aniversy of the publication of Harper Lee's novel approaches, forces me to see the novel in a whole new light. I have not read it since high school--where I thoroughly enjoyed the novel, and don't really recall any meaningful discussion of the inadequacy of Atticus's response to the apartheid society of the times. As Gladwell writes:

Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.

Folsom was the same way. He knew the frailties of his fellow-Alabamians when it came to race. But he could not grasp that those frailties were more than personal—that racism had a structural dimension. After he was elected governor a second time, in 1955, Folsom organized the first inaugural ball for blacks in Alabama’s history. That’s a very nice gesture. Yet it doesn’t undermine segregation to give Negroes their own party. It makes it more palatable.

Gladwell's piece leaves me with a lot to think about. If you've ever read To Kill a Mockingbird (or seen the movie), then you should consider what Gladwell has to say.

The Price of the Ticket (by John Seabrook)
Seabrook's story article is a story about the nature of corporate mergers, competing motives, and the general state of the touring music scene. If you have ever felt ripped off by TicketMaster's fees, than you'll enjoy this article. The role of scalpers (the so-called secondary market), and their relation with below-market initial price levels is an interesting problem.

Travels in Siberia part 2 (by Ian Frazier)
The second part of Frazier's travelogue continues on where part 1 left off. My understatement of the day: Asia is a large and interesting place.

Revolutionary Road (by Nancy Franklin)
Franklin discusses yet another set of documentaries discussing the anniversary of various culturally important events from the 1960s and 70s. In particular, the topic is a forthcoming series of documentary from VH1 (the "Lords of the Revolution"). I think Franklin sums up many peoples thoughts with this sentence:

If your first response to the prospect of these shows is cynicism and dread, that is largely due to VH1's approach to popular culture, which is to put it all into a blender, puree it until you can't tell one ingredient from another, and feed it to boy ironists (and the occasional girl), who then spit the mixture up against the wall for their--and, supposedly, our--amusement.

The review does praise the documentary's treatment of the Black Panther movement. It makes me want to see that one episode.