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.