Sunday, December 31, 2006


Via Eszter, here's a puzzle for the compulsive among us. On request, I'll put the solution in comments -- but surely you want to figure it out for yourself....

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Ann Althouse is a moron.

Professor Althouse says:

The number of Americans who have died in the Iraq war...

... has now surpassed the number who died in the 9/11 attacks.

ADDED: A key question -- with an unknowable answer -- is: How many Americans would have died in post-9/11 attacks if we had not chosen the path of fighting back?
Fighting back?

Monday, December 25, 2006

Tis' the season III.

Harry Eyres' "Slow Lane" column in Saturday's Financial Times riffed on Lewis Hyde's The Gift:
. . . . As Hyde puts it, "whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away not kept - or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move in its stead. The only essential is this: the gift must always move."

This mobile, generous nature of the gift is the hinge that links the two parts of The Gift - from the gift economy to the work of art as gift. It certainly makes sense to me to think of the artists who have moved and delighted and disturbed and consoled me for the last 40 years as givers, not merely suppliers of commodities to the market. "The work of art exists in two economies," according to Hyde, "a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market but where there is no gift there is no art." The gifts of John Keats or Franz Schubert or Walt Whitman or Vincent Van Gogh are so great that they could never be repaid.

It is here that the gift goes beyond the kind of implied reciprocity that must have made potlatches potentially stressful. For a gift to be truly a gift, it must give up any notion of a quid pro quo. Percy Bysshe Shelley illustrated this notion beautifully and absurdly when as a very young man he went about in the streets of Dublin throwing copies of his Address to the Irish People into passing carriages and open windows and then later launched bottles containing his Declaration of Rights and the ballad The Devil's Walk into the Bristol Channel.

John Keats got little enough reward for the poetry that consumed his short life: his one hope was that he "might be among the English poets" after his death - not a desire merely for fame but for his gifts to be as widely distributed as possible. Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert in their last years became more and more detached from the market economy and created masterpieces for posterity - giving down the generations. Van Gogh, of course, never had any success in the market economy - during his life, that is: after his death, by a cruel irony, the gifts he had created in poverty became icons of wealth.

You don't have to be a great poet, musician or artist to give. We all give ourselves and are ourselves gifts. When parents give to their children they don't usually expect any immediate or calculable return. That a child is the ultimate gift ("Unto us a child is born, unto us a child is given") is the message of the Christmas story, before the wise men come on the scene. That message is beautifully conveyed in Velázquez's early Adoration of the Kings of 1619, usually in the Prado, now in the National Gallery, London, the only religious painting by the great demythologiser I have ever been moved by. But then Velázquez painted children with more delicacy and tact and dignity than any other artist I can think of. For once the Christ-child is a real child, solemn and wide-eyed, and he effortlessly upstages the kings.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Tis' the season II.

Tis' the season.

Happy Festivus, everybody!

From yen.

Says here Haruki Murakami comes from money. I guess that doesn't change my view of him much, but it does remind me that it would be nice to come from money.

Strange days indeed.

Alex Tabarrok found this story, which -- he stresses -- is true:

The poster child for profitable Second Life businesses is Ailin Graef--better known by her avatar's name, Anshe Chung--and Anshe Chung Studios, the business she runs with her husband, Guntram Graef.

Originally, the two ran the company from Germany, but at the beginning of this year, they set up shop in Wuhan, a large city in China, and are now employing more than 30 people full-time at, she says, better than local average wages.

Last month, Ailin Graef issued a press release announcing that the company's total holdings, comprised mainly of virtual land in Second Life, were worth more than a million real-life dollars. For those who aren't familiar with the complex economies of virtual worlds, such a claim may seem incomprehensible.

But for anyone who has spent significant time in Second Life, the number seems all too possible, given Chung's dominance of the land market there.

On Monday, Graef visited Second Life for a discussion about her business, how best to set up businesses in Second Life and the nature of competition there.

Unfortunately, as the interview was commencing, the event was attacked by a "griefer," someone intent on disrupting the proceedings. The griefer managed to assault the CNET theater for 15 minutes with--well, there's no way to say this delicately--animated flying penises.

It's not clear why the griefer attacked, but Anshe Chung is controversial to some Second Life residents for reasons such as inflexibility on land pricing, the signs she has placed in many areas of the virtual world that are visible to anyone flying overhead, and her ability to get many residents to sell their land to her.

To see Anshe Chung's real estate listings, follow the link in her name above. For some pictures of the attack on the press conference, well, here you go.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Red Bull and _____.

Wikipedia offers this helpful review of Red Bull's uses as a mixer:
Red Bull mixed with vodka was first created by Parker Hallam in Dallas, Texas, at a bar called Soul II Soul located on Lower Greenville. It is known by several names, in some areas it is called an "Eyeopener" or "Dagger" while along the East Coast of the United States, it is known as a "Birch" or when mixed with Peach Tree Schnapps, a "Birch Tree". In the American Midwest it's known as simply "Red Bull & Vodka", "Vodka Bomb", "V-Bull", or in Chicago, a "Klenfield." It has also been called a "Raging Bull" in the Austin, Texas area. In some areas of Canada, a shot glass of RedBull or similar energy drink is filled and then dropped into a glass o vodka, which is promptly drunk. This is known as a One-Armed Scissor. In Switzerland it is called "Gummibäärli" which means Gummi Bear. In Turkey, it is called "Votka Enerji," which means Vodka Energy. When mixed with cherry vodka, it's known as a "Cherry Bomb." Mixed with Jägermeister is it called a "Bull Blaster," "JägerBlaster" or "JägerBomb", "JägerBomber", "Flying Hirsch" and "U-Boot" in some parts of Germany." When served with the Jägermeister still in a shot glass, it is called a "Train Wreck" or "Depth Charge." Mixed with whiskey, it is called "Bull's Balls" or "Night Bandit." When mixed with Hennessy it is known as "Crunk Juice" or "Wavy Juice." When dropped in Rum, it has been called a tweaking Puerto Rican in reference to the energy boost and term associated with being on speed. When mixed with tequila and vodka, it is sometimes known as a "TVR" in the UK and Tokyo metropolitan area of Japan where the name is recognised as referring to the TVR sports car company. When served with Vodka and Cranberry juice, it is known as, "VCR." Detroiters may order a "Black-Bull" - which would be a Red Bull mixed with Guinness Stout. In South Texas and Mexico when mixed with vodka, especially of the Absolut brand, it is called Absolut Bullshit. "Dave" is the name given to 1/2 pint lager, vodka and red bull, mixed in a pint glass, in Bradford, UK.
Future anthropologists will be grateful, no doubt.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Happy Winter Solstice!

Surely a sign of global warming: Nick picked raspberries near Rottingen, on the shortest day of the year.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Flat or round?

Eric Rosenfield has some thoughts about round and flat characters:
In his book, Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forester separates characters into "round" and "flat." The difference is deceptively simple; a flat character is "constructed round a single idea or quality"; "The really flat character can be expressed in one sentence such as 'I never will desert Mr. Micawber.'" The round character, on the other hand, is a character "capable of surprising in a convincing way"; "It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book."
Michiko Kakutani and others seem to presume that "round" characters are good and "flat" characters are bad, but of course a great many great writers employ "flat" characters.

Tip o' the cap for this to Ya Sam.

Sarajevo in winter.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Champagne is from France.

John Kay explains why you can buy American champagne and port:
Woodrow Wilson's failure to persuade the US Senate to join the League of Nations had effects on the champagne market that outlasted the League itself. Keynes made coruscating criticism of the treaty of Versailles in The Economic Consequences of the Peace. He did not refer, however, to the treaty's petty, vindictive attack on German wine growers that rewrote international agreements on wine labelling. America's failure to ratify the treaty meant failure to recognise the legal status of French champagne. In 1921 it was illegal to sell champagne in the US under any label so this did not matter much, but today the growers advertise extensively to persuade readers of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair that only the French product is the real thing.
John Kay, "From price bubbles to flat sales: the story of champagne," Financial Times 13 (Dec. 19, 2006).

Monday, December 18, 2006


I try not to pay much attention to Glenn Reynolds, but it's nice to see that he has truly found his metier.

It takes a nation of bloggers.

The Editors articulate a point of view I did not know I had:
I freely admit that, if Obama’s response to the latest Presidential address was to photoshop Bush’s head on Marie Antoinette’s body and spend the next few weeks referring to him as “The Dauphine of Douchebags”, I would declare him to be the Greatest Human Being Who Ever Lived and vote for him for everything, forever. That said, I read way too many blogs.
I've got to get out more and meet one of these "swing voters."

The Seventh Amendment.

This is what conservative judicial activism looks like.

Go back to Delaware.

Joe Biden's problem is not that no one believes that he's running for President -- it's that no one cares.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

But what about the poor waiting rooms?

Some years ago, seeing children with poor reading skills crowding his clinic, [Dr. Barry Zuckerman] and his colleagues stocked the waiting room with used books from their own children's shelves. Soon, however, the books began to disappear as kids stole them and took them home. When a colleague complained angrily that he wouldn't contribute any more to the waiting room's supply, Dr. Zuckerman had a happier reaction to the pilferage. "Well, maybe that's good," he remembered himself saying. "They'll have them at home." Then he made a little joke: "We should just give the books to the kids." The joke became a nationwide program, Reach Out and Read, which has enlisted six hundred clinics across the country to give a book to every child who visits. "Actually," Dr. Zuckerman declared, "we get bigger smiles -- I swear to God -- for books than for lollipops."
David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible In America 225 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

I found Reach Out and Read's web site here. You can make a donation here -- I just did.

Only you.

TIME's person of the year is stupid enough not to be rewarded with further comment, except that the magazine unwittingly did a masterful job of sticking it to their lead sponsor.

The kindness of strangers.

For many weeks, Tom and Kara had collected scraps of case, enough to treat themselves and the kids to a restaurant meal -- not to celebrate, just to soothe their anxieties a little. Kara needed a bone marrow transplant, she had learned, and so the family went to a truck stop in Lebanon, New Hampshire, where the portions were huge. The two boys held a contest over who could eat more. The family laughed a lot. They talked about their hardships, and snatches of their conversation were overheard by a stranger at the bar. He was a truck driver passing through, a man who got little time with his family.

"I asked the lady for the check," Kara recalled, "and she said, 'There's no check.' She said, 'A gentleman at the bar paid your bill.' I was offended. I tried to explain to this lady that I didn't accept charity." Nothing insulted Kara more than pity. Poverty and sickness infuriated her, and as they drove home to Newport, where they lived beside a junky auto repair shop, she boiled and brooded. She had lost her long chestnut hair from chemotherapy, her teeth from lack of funds for dental care, her stamina, her gaiety. She was not about to lose her dignity as well. So she called the truck stop and demanded the name of the benefactor. He was still there, the waitress said, and she handed him the phone. Kara asked him frostily why he had paid, and he told her, "He had never heard a family discuss problems that openly," she said. "We were so close-knit, and he was a truck driver on the road a lot and just wanted to do something for us. He was touched. This man couldn't believe we could laugh at life like that."

She remembered him telling her: "I counted. Your children said they loved you twenty times."

Her anger suddenly cracked. "I broke down, and I cried."
David K. Shipler, The Working Poor: Invisible In America 174-75 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Norman Mailer on Michiko Kakutani.

Q. What is your greatest fear?

A. That I will never meet Michiko Kakutani and so not be able to tell her what I think of her. She has an unseemly haste to rush into print with the first very bad review of any book I write. She does this ahead of publication.

That is a strategy. If the first review of a book is dreadful, an author needs at least three good ones to change that first impression."
New York Magazine.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Moneyball is a text.

At Salon, Malcolm Gladwell talks about his favorite book of the year:
My favorite book of the year was Michael Lewis' "The Blind Side," his story about a young football player from the slums of Memphis, Tenn., who is adopted by a wealthy, white, evangelical family. Lewis has a made a habit of writing about sports recently -- first baseball in "Moneyball" and now American football in "The Blind Side." But as was the case with "Moneyball," sports is really only a subtext for a much more meaningful examination of discrimination and class and race. I wept at the end of "The Blind Side," which I have not done at the end of a work of nonfiction for a very long time.
I read Moneyball. I do not remember the parts where sports was "a subtext for a much more meaningful examination of discrimination and class and race." To my recollection, sports was the text -- if I could quote the movie Barcelona here, I would, but consider it quoted -- and there wasn't much in there about discrimination and class and race, even in the subtext. Unless you used a really, really powerful microscope to look down below the text. Did I not read the book very well?

I'm still looking for a way to work Tabitha Soren into this post.

Truly odd.

Via Lagniappe, watch Crispin Glover on David Letterman's show in 1987.

Speaking of artistes.

Prospect Magazine (UK) has a list of the most overrated and underrated books of the year. I'm happy to say that I haven't read any of the most overrated, although Zadie Smith's On Beauty is on the shelf and somewhere in the notional queue. The consensus most overrated:
1. The God Delusion Richard Dawkins
2 . The Blunkett Tapes David Blunkett
3 . Everyman Philip Roth
The list of underrated books contains one about soccer I hadn't heard of: David Goldblatt's The Ball Is Round: A Global History Of Football. I'll have to keep my eye out for it.

But is it art?

Michael Crichton, artiste.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A setback for our cartoonish foreign policy.

The Fighting Keyboardists will be hit hard by the death of the one of the leading theorists in their war on terror.

No Churchill.

An Administration official pointed out that the President's speeches on the war are like the last paragraph of every Churchill speech from the Second World War: a soaring peroration about freedom, civilization, and darkness. But in Churchill's case, the official went on, nineteen pages of analysis, contextualization, and persuasion preceded that final paragraph. A Bush speech gives only the uplift -- which suggests that there is no strategy behind it.
George Packer, "Knowing The Enemy," The New Yorker 60 , 68 (December 18, 2006).

Saturday, December 09, 2006

All those cereals.

Virginia Postel finds Clive Crook nailing a liberal in the act of failing to appreciate the glory of markets sufficiently:
In his latest National Journal column, Clive Crook remembers Milton Friedman, whom he describes as "the formative intellectual influence of my life." I particularly like this passage, which isn't about Friedman per se:
Much of what is wrong with popular attitudes to capitalism comes down to one thing: a lack of wonder at what uncoordinated markets can achieve. Going to a grocery store for the hundredth or thousandth time is a pretty humdrum experience. As a rule it isn't going to elicit much of an intellectual response -- though if it does, the response might be one of two kinds. The commentator Robert Kuttner once wrote of his dismay at the great number of breakfast cereals on offer in his local grocery. What a waste, was his point; who could possibly need all these different cereals? Can't we arrange things more intelligently? This is a leftist kind of response: "Put somebody sensible in charge and plan things better." The liberal response (in the proper sense of "liberal") is different: "How amazing that all these choices are available, so that every taste is catered to, and it's all so cheap."
Most of my work these days derives from this sense of wonder [and?] the curiosity it arouses about the specific creative processes behind these results. That's why I write mostly about culture and commerce rather than about government policy.
Clive Crook puts words in Kuttner's mouth, and misses something important. Suppose the following: The breakfast-cereal market is highly concentrated. A small number of firms (e.g., Kellogg's, General Mills) have a very substantial market share, notwithstanding the profusion of brands to choose from in the supermarket. These firms find themselves competing for scarce space on supermarket shelves, which they occupy with all of these different cereals, the better to crowd out competing firms. Consumers choose cereals, but retailers allocate shelf space to manufacturers. In these circumstances, the many varieties of breakfast cereal do not reflect consumer demand.

I'm no expert in breakfast cereals, but I do recall reading descriptions of this market suggesting what I have written above. I probably like breakfast cereal more than most people, but very few of the cereals stocked in most grocery store interest me. So when I read Kuttner's comment, even as the object of scorn from Crook and Postrel, my thought is that he was dismayed as the specific array of cereals that he saw for sale, not at variety per se. Maybe, with all these cereals, not every taste is being catered too. (And did Kuttner express the wish for central planning that Crook ascribes to him? Not in what's said here.)

Virginia Postrel has a lot of interesting things to say, but this post strikes me as demonstrating the opposite of curiosity. It's difficult to be curious if you're busy congratulating yourself. Maybe Kuttner had some intuition that the breakfast-cereal market wasn't working well, and maybe he didn't, but Crook is too smitten with the notion of free markets to notice. Likewise Postrel. If I had to bet, I'd guess that Kuttner eats breakfast cereal and Crook and Postrel do not.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Happy 50th Birthday, Larry.

And also to younger folks celebrating a December 7 birthday!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Pynchon defends McEwan.

Pynchon speaks (again!):
Thomas Pynchon, who vies with J D Salinger for the title of the world's most secretive author, has broken his strict rules on privacy to join a campaign to clear the British Booker Prize-winning novelist Ian McEwan of charges of plagiarism.

. . . Pynchon . . . sent a typed letter to his British agent yesterday to say that McEwan "merits not our scolding but our gratitude" for using details from another author's book. . . .

McEwan has been under fire for copying several details from the memoirs of a wartime nurse in London for his Booker-nominated novel, Atonement.

In an extraordinary campaign launched yesterday, many of the world's best known authors rallied around McEwan, complaining that the future of historical novel-writing was threatened if they could not copy or borrow details from eyewitnesses to history.

Other novelists backing the author include John Updike, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Thomas Keneally and Zadie Smith.

Courtesy of the Daily Telegraph, here's the letter (click on it to enlarge):

How do you say "bomb" in Mayan?

Rex Reed calls Mel Gibson's new movie, Apocalypto, "boring," "affected," "expensive," "gruesomely violent" and "historically inaccurate." And that's just in the first sentence.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Need to find books not to buy?

The Library Thing UnSuggester tells you which books you won't like. Like Middlemarch? Then you won't like You Slay Me, by Katie MacAllister.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Education and spending.

Paul Tough had a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine last week (link now unavailable to us non-subscribers) to which Jon Chait responds in today's LA Times with a more discouraging note. Matt Yglesias threw in his two cents as well, prompting me to ask my brother -- who knows a thing or two about this topic -- for his thoughts. His e-mail response is below. He generally is to be found in the Yglesias/Chait neighborhood of the political spectrum, so any disagreement should be taken as prompted by policy, not ideology. He was a little ornery when he wrote this, and thought I should point this out when I asked to post it.
Educational policy -- like lots of other things -- gets grabbed by a certain number of experts (hello, Jon Chait) and used, baseball bat style, to beat on those of differing ideologies. Thus the hordes of liberals who use K-12 education as a handy excuse to complain about Republicans and their service-cutting ways, just as hordes of conservatives wail about Democrats' allegiance to corrupt and public-good obstructing unions. On this subject Matt seems to have a potentially deaf ear for when he's being played for a partisan patsie, and when he's not.

The argument that widespread improvement in American education will take huge amounts of (presumably politically unattainable) money has been repeated so often over the years that lots of people consider it for 30 seconds, find it persuasive, and walk away to think about other things for the next several months. This ends up being extremely frustrating to people who are actually improving K-12 education and would really prefer if Chait and Yglessias paid attention to what has been working -- noticed its general lack of correlation with 'paying teachers like investment bankers' -- and wrote more about that.

Some recent observations that they don't seem to register:
  • Per student, many city and suburban schools do not have nearly the spending disparity that people assume. Boston city schools have spent more per student than suburban schools for years. This is because State and Federal funding offsets a large amount of the local funding disparity in most American urban schools.
  • Within schools of similar operational and capital investment levels, educational outcomes can swing wildly as a basis of lots of other things, not least of which is the actual educational program being delivered.
  • Teachers who work 16 hour days are far from universal among high successful school models. There are lots of public and charter school distracts that have achieved similar results to KIPP (the network Chait is referencing) without significantly increasing teacher time.
Would more money help? Sure, why not. In the long run is it probably necessary, once the country reaches the limits to the improvement that can be made without increasing funding? Absolutely. Is more public money a necessary precondition for significantly improving US K-12 education? Not based on my limited experience.

To Chait's point about teacher retention: massively increasing teacher pay does a lot less to drive retention than having teachers work in schools that are very successful. Like lots of other industries, people who enjoy their work and are part of a very successful organization enjoy high levels of job satisfaction and longevity that far outweigh people who are paid moderately better but work in hell. The reason lots of inner-city schools have high staff turnover is not because lots of young, idealistic teachers go in with some delusion that they're going to work cushy 9-5 hours for really good pay. A bigger driver of turnover is the misery people feel at being a cog in a failed system. Lots of top-performing charter school networks around the country pay their teachers less than public schools, and enjoy far better retention. Pesky those facts.

Chait final paragraph that ends, "you can't build a national education strategy around relying on the kindness of strangers," makes me momentary want to laugh or vomit. Can we translate this whole op-ed into a the bumper sticker 'I really want my wife to get a raise, and have been pissed about it for years', toss it into the trash can of silly commentary, and move on? Lots of people, like Chait, think their spouse does something admirable that should be paid more. The idea that this pay increase should come before any serious conversation about how K-12 education is already being improved is.... well, self-serving is one word that comes to mind.

Of course, there is another group of people out there who have been working for years to get public school teachers paid more -- and who are perfectly blunt about their indifference to improving education. That's the public teachers union. If you told me I could either 1) magically pay American teachers like investment bankers, or 2) abolish the teacher union, I would say that the second has far far far far more likelihood of resulting in a significant improvement in American public education in the near future. The first, absent something like the second, would lead to very little.

As shown by Chait's op-ed -- which might as well have been a press release from his wife's union -- we've still got a long way to go.
I've edited the form a little, but the words are all his. And the "limited experience" thing is just a little self-effacing.

Book covers.

Here's a collection of recent book covers, with comments on the trade. Against the Day is here. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is here, and let's just say that the U.S. version is a big step up from what they're selling in Australia. The Keep is here. But don't stop there . . . .

Fine wines, and expensive too.

The SF Chronicle has picked its top 100 wines of 2006. I see exactly two (2) reds under $20/bottle, which makes the list somewhat less helpful for my purposes that it has been in the past.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Muybridge's photos, animated.

This will be Wikipedia's image of the day on December 21. (You can find it the "archives" for this month; scroll down to the 21st.) Wikipedia explains that it is:
An animated image of Eadweard Muybridge's pioneering high speed photography, demonstrating that a horse's feet all leave the ground during a gallop. Muybridge used a battery of cameras lined along a track. The first camera had to be triggered manually, but the rest were automatically triggered by an electronic apparatus he designed.
Rebecca Solnit's River Of Shadows, which is about Muybridge and these photos, among other things, is a tremendous book and well worth reading.

Light a candle.

For every visit to this site, Bristol-Myers Squibb will donate $1 to the National AIDS Fund. So, go already.

I, banker.

There's a new post up at the book blog about Jonathan Knee's The Accidental Investment Banker, a memoir of his decade (less a few years) at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

Markets in everything.

Courtesy of the Pynchon-L list, there is a market in counterfeit Tibetan stamps.

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