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.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Review: Nicholas Nickleby

Nicholas Nickleby is the second novel by written by Charles Dickens that I have read. I don't have anything very profound to say about it--the novel is a 19th century melodrama. It is full of interesting characters (with interesting names, such as Wackford Squeers), and ends with surprsing revelations. Having now read several Victorian novels, it is striking how standard the whole loss of identity/stolen name plot point is.

The basic plot of novel follows the adventures of Mr. Nicholas Nickleby as he works to support his sister and mother following the untimely death of his father. His greedy and nearly heartless uncle, Mr. Ralph Nickleby, does his best to make Nicholas and his family as miserable as possible. Kate is a basic picture of moral and aesthetic perfection. Mrs. Nickleby is the comic relief--she enjoys hearing herself talk and often launches off on monologues of a preposterous nature.

Although enjoyable in a episodic manner, this novel was not a particularly engaging or edifying read.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker, Aug 3

Selected thoughts on the 3 August 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Talk of the Town: Math-Hattan (by Nick Paumgarten)
I would happily go to a math museum and take a math-themed tour of Manhatten.

A New Page (by Nicholson Baker)
Baker reviews his experiences with the new Kindle book reader. Reading this after the Kindle/Orwell incident was rather strange. I was more interested in ownership of digital media than in the aesthetics of the Kindle 2. Baker describes similar issues, but focuses more on the quirks of his own preferences for how to read.

Itsy-Bitys Teeny-Weeny (by Patricia Marx)
I had no idea bathing suits were so expensive.

Travels in Siberia part 1 (by Ian Frazier)
This is the first part of travelogue recounting Frazier's experiences driving across Siberia. I found myself unexpectedly enthralled by the description of the geography and history of the land. I don't particularly like travelling (at least not just for traveling's sake) but, for an instant, I was tempted to strike out on a journey of my own. I look forward to the second part.

Party of One (by Kelefa Sanneh)
It is impossible not to compare Sanneh's profile of talk-radio host Michael Savage with David Foster Wallace's 2005 profile of John Ziegler (see here for my thoughts on that). Sanneh largely focuses on Savage the man. Is their any fact, truth, or wisdom in Savage's thoughts on herbal medicine, homeopathy, politics, or history? Such pesky things are now that this article is about. Savage is humanized by Sanneh, which I guess is an acompshment given the views of the average New Yorker reader.

Betrayal (by Joan Acocella)
Acocella delivers an engaging discussion of the evolving way in which Judas Iscariot has been viewed throughout history. The article is motivated by new translations of the Codex Tchacos. I agree that the way the story of Judas is told tells more about ourselves than about the Gnostics. I'm fascinated by how different history may have been if a different sect had won out. This article serves as a great introduction to the some of the more recent work on the competeing theology of early Christian sects.