May 19, 2014
One reason I'm not blogging more is that there's not a lot worth blogging about, and I've got better things to do, like playing with my music files, or walking the dogs.
Mallard Fillmore is not a funny comic strip. It's just dyspeptic, like Dick Cheney or Karl Rove. I think newspapers just carry it to provide "balance" with Doonesbury, which is not only funny but affectionate, sending up its own cohort as well as everything else.
I don't get it. I've never heard anyone say that. What does it mean? Happy Fourth of July? Fourth dithering president in a row? What?? "Obscure dyspeptic" does not compute.
I have a lovely set of the complete string quartets of Shostakovich's friend Weinberg. I load up my Sony 5-CD changer and play it whenever I'm downstairs, reading the papers, fixing a snack, feeding the dogs. Then I pause it when I go out or upstairs or downstairs. But this doesn't work because the Sony then shuts itself off. Why does it have a pause button if I'm not to be allowed to use it?
All my problems are first-world problems, and not worth blogging about. Yet the first world has really big problems.
May 19, 2014
Hello? Anybody there?
I am still spellbound by Philip K. Howard's book, The Rule of Nobody, about how we are so hamstrung by regulations that we can't accomplish anything, which I wrote about last time, on May 2.
Last week on the TV news, the back of a row-house had fallen off in a poor neighborhood in Philadelphia. The structural integrity of nearby houses is now threatened. The city is said to have at least 500 houses that are unfit to live in, and 2500 more deemed to be structurally unsound. Tenants and landlords (of houses that are not falling down) complain to the city about the danger. They complain about trees on a steep slope in front of a row of houses that are constantly threatening to cause problems; they are shunted to the power company, to the cable company, to this office and to that office, and nothing is ever done.
On the most dangerous highway in Pennsylvania last week, a stretch of 78, a tractor-trailer slammed into cars that had stopped or slowed down; three people were burned to death. This road has been claiming victims for years; nothing is being done by the most expensive and corrupt state government in the USA.
Meanwhile, the biggest success story of our lifetimes has been the unregulated permissionless Internet, which has enabled the innovations of Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Cisco, and countless more. About a hundred years ago American broadcasting was handed to commercial interests on a plate; subsequently the railroads and the best telephone service in the world were regulated out of existence, and now it is proposed to regulate the Internet. Some lobbyists want the FCC to subject the Internet to a 1934 law regulating telephone service: that's the kind of telephone, the landline, which, the last time I had one, had to remain unplugged, because it rang constantly with cold callers trying to sell me insurance. These are no doubt the same lobbyists who make it possible for CEOs to be paid hundreds or even thousands of times as much as their employees. But perhaps it won't matter; the President of the United States says he is in favor of giving up oversight of the Internet, the one undoubted American success story of modern times, so that the likes of Vladimir Putin can have a crack at censoring our Internet as well as Russia's.
The truth is simply that America is broken. There are a great many things that progressives, libertarians and tea party types should be able to agree on, but the dislike and distrust is such, and the cult of greed so entrenched, that the country is foundering.
An interesting irony is that more than a thousand years ago, China had the best government in the world, because the Imperial Chinese sought out the brightest youngsters and trained them to be civil servants. Then China was overtaken in the good government stakes by Europe and North America, and now the tables are turning again. True, the Chinese Communist government is profoundly authoritarian, paranoid, capricious and capable of cruelty, but it is no more Communist than my grandma; meanwhile China has terrible environmental, economic and demographic problems, and it appears to be doing whatever is necessary to solve them: for example, Chinese industrial regions are inventing and enforcing their own carbon caps, while the so-called "first world" dithers.
May 19, 2014
Marx admired the dynamism of capitalism; he saw that it was the best way to bring prosperity to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. But some people are always going to be left out, and he also saw that untrammeled capitalism would dig traps for itself, inventing nonsense like gambling on tulip bulbs, trading on tiny margins, credit default swaps and bundles of toxic mortgages, causing itself to collapse from time to time. So he assumed that capitalism would have to be superceded, and went on blot his copybook by inventing communism, which was pie in the sky. We are stuck with capitalism, the worst form of economy except for all the others.
A French economist, Thomas Piketty, has published an unlikely best-seller, a big tough book called Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He studied economic statistics going back centuries (possible because France, for example, kept meticulous records for the purpose of collecting taxes). The 20th century was distorted by two world wars and the Great Depression, but over the long haul the problem with capitalism is that the return from investment outpaces that from labour. In other words, it really is true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
We could of course do something about this. If the national minimum wage had been indexed from the beginning, today we might be as prosperous as Switzerland and Scandinavia, with almost no poverty at all. If we raise the minimum wage now, it is said, jobs will be lost: but we have fast-food joints on every street corner, often several in one block; would it be such a bad thing is half of them closed? And the remaining ones would be paying decent wages so that people could support familes, and they would spend the money, which would create new jobs.
Ah, but that would be against the law. Martin Feldstein, writing about Piketty's book in the Wall Street Journal, says that "The changes in tax rules since 1980 create a false impression of rising inequality." So if today's middle class, for the first time in American history, does not believe that its children will be better off, it must be because they're all smoking crack.
The mind doesn't boggle; it just goes to sleep.
May 2, 2014
Russia collapsed in 1917, again in 1989, and the criminal Vladimir Putin is setting it up for another collapse sometime soon. (This morning's papers say that he now has the nerve to demand that Ukraine should pull back its forces from its own territory.) But this is the 21st century: In the Soviet Union, were there filthy rich crooks stashing their cash and buying mansions in London, New York, Miami, the south of France? I think not. In today's world the Russian economy could be crippled overnight and Putin would be out of a job, but President Obama and our European allies wring their hands and do almost nothing. Is this "Peace in our time?" Syrian children are living in the streets in refugee camps while Bashar drops bombs on civilians in his own cities, and runs for re-election, and CNN talked about nothing but a missing airplane for more than a month. All the news is bad, but even worse, it is boring. That's why I'm not blogging like I should be.
All I've got to brag about is downloading 50 or 60 or 70 CDs worth of free classical music in the last few weeks: for example, dozens of string quartet concerts from Europe broadcast by French Radio, featuring wonderful groups we've hardly heard of, some of them because they were based behind the Iron Curtain, some only available on high-priced imported labels: the Amati, Arditti, Auryn, Diotima, Hába, Hagen, Harmony, Jack, Klenke, Kocian, Kuss, Leipziger, Petersen, Prazák, Johannes, Quiroga, Rubin, Shanghai, Zemlinsky, Zwiebel quartets are among them. It's like having the Wigmore Hall in my music room, and that's just the chamber music. It's time-consuming sorting all these music files, but much more rewarding than reading the papers.
Now I've quit my job at Barnes & Noble. Again. This time for good. I'm not "seasonal", I'm gone. It's just no fun working there any more. I've never liked the store or the mall I worked in for over four years; one of my colleagues, who has a second job in the same mall, said "It's not the mall; it's the store." I am undecided about whether to write more about it. Perhaps not, because I still hope for the best for the company, and I'll miss my customers and my co-workers. But anyway I came home from work -- a week ago last night, as it happens -- and Ethne and I were telling each other about our day, as we do, and instead of saying "Why don't you quit?" she said "QUIT." And I know an order when I hear one. After nearly 16 years with Barnes & Noble I have happy memories, especially of the Jordan Creek Mall in West Des Moines, but enough is enough.
May 2, 2014
Who's in charge? Nobody.
The Morning Call reported this week that a widow in western Pennsylvania has had her home sold to a stranger for less than half what it is worth because she owed the local authority $6.30. Her husband had always taken care of the financial stuff, and after he died she discovered that she owed back taxes, twice, so she paid them. Twice. She did not know that the tax bureau had added some interest at one point. The article by Amy McConnell Schaarsmith of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is full of juicy quotes: "the judge could only follow the letter of the strictly written tax law...this case is no different from any other case...Tax sale law is pretty clear that if you don't pay your taxes for a two-year period, the sale must proceed..."
Beaver County's chief solicitor, Joe Askar, said that the county's tax claim bureau had followed proper procedure and can provide evidence that the homeowner received notices. A few paragraphs later, Schaarsmith writes, quoting Askar again, it seems that two certified letters were returned as undeliverable, but at least two first-class letters were not returned. "The law is clear that if a first-class letter goes out and doesn't return, it's deemed received", said Askar. Some evidence.
The real problem here is that there was nobody with the authority, the guts or the brains to say, "Hey! This is stupid! We're not going to do this!" And this is the reason why the United States of America doesn't work any more, as Philip K. Howard shows in his new book, The Rule of Nobody. We deregulated the savings & loans and got the worst financial scandal in American history in the years around 1990. We deregulated electricity, and we got Enron in 2001, the biggest bankruptcy reorganization and the biggest audit failure in history. We deregulated the mortgage business (I first heard about "no doc" mortgages after I returned to the USA in 1998) and in 2008 we got the biggest national financial collapse since the Great Depression. But those were the kinds of deregulations that Wall Street types want, and that's not what Howard is writing about. While we allow the CEO of Yum, the company that operates Taco Bell, McDonalds and other fast food joints, to be paid more than 2000 times what a kid flipping burgers gets paid, every year the Congress of the Unites States and the state legislatures, Democrats and Republicans alike, pass more rules and regulations that affect everybody, every day.
The Bayonne Bridge between New York and New Jersey needs to have its roadbed raised about 120 feet, so that the port of Newark, the biggest port on the East Coast, will be able to admit the larger container ships that will be passing through the rebuilt Panama Canal starting next year. Otherwise the economy of the entire Eastern seaboard will suffer. The long span of the bridge is very highly regarded as architecture, and the Port Authority's engineers have figured out that they can raise the roadbed on the existing bridge for far less money than building a new bridge or digging a tunnel for the traffic. But it's been ten years now and the project hasn't got started, because the dedicated public servants at the Port Authority (not the clowns who helped Chris Christy play with his cones) have to satisfy thousands of pages of requirements, many of them obsolete or irrelevant, for example a historical and geological survey of every building within a radius of a mile of each end of the bridge, even through there will be no new foundations required; all the East Coast Indian tribes had to be consulted, even though there will be no digging to speak of, and so on and on.
A tree fell into a creek in New Jersey, and the local authority set out immediately to remove it, but they had to spend thousands of dollars and allow weeks of flooding in order to satisfy the law regarding alterations to this particular type of creek. An enormous amount of money was appropriated to weatherize hundreds of thousands of houses, as part of the economic stimulus, making jobs and eventually saving energy, but after several years almost nothing has been done, because each local project has to satisfy rules about federal employment going back to the 1930s. (No wonder there are never any "shovel-ready" projects.) In several states, children setting up lemonade stands on their sidewalks (what an American thing to do!) have been shut down because they didn't have vending permits.
Our wonderful Founding Fathers made it difficult to pass laws, but gave no thought at all to repealing laws that don't work. Meanwhile the easiest thing for a bureaucrat to do is to say "no" and pass the buck, nobody wants to make a decision, and the USA is rusting away like a 1957 Plymouth.
April 14, 2014
A Great Day
35 years ago today my dream of finding a life partner came true and I became the luckiest man on earth. Happy anniversary, dear Ethne! Now I have to try to live to be 88, so I can be married for 50 years like my dad was. (Can she put up with me for that long??)
April 14, 2014
Here's the old poop himself
Caught in the act of scarfing his dinner in front of the TV. Any resemblance to Prince Charles has to do with the wrinkles.
April 7, 2014
Peter Matthiessen RIP
Peter Matthiessen has died, at age 86, just before publication of his last novel. He died of leukemia. I hear from people on Long Island that he opted for a treatment that would either kill him or cure him, and spent his last couple of months in agony. (The same sort of thing happened to my dad over 20 years ago. Remind me never to volunteer to be a guinea pig.)
Matthiessen was most famous for his lyrical nature writing, his most famous book being The Snow Leopard (1978), which won two National Book Awards, in 1979 and 1980, in two different categories, one for the hardback ("contemporary thought") and one for the paperback (general non-fiction). I had never read any of his books (there were over 30 in the end) and had barely heard of him when Killing Mister Watson came out, in 1990. I was living in England then, and bought it on the basis of reviews, and was bowled over by it.
Living overseas, I was keeping an eye on my own country from that perspective, and I thought that Killing Mister Watson was the best American novel I had ever read. (Since then, Philip Roth's American Pastoral in 1997 has run it a close second.) Edgar J. Watson was a real person, but the facts about him are fragmented and elusive, and Matthiessen's work is fiction. It is set in Florida when that state was a frontier (Watson was killed in 1910) and the verisimilitude is such that you want to swat mosquitoes while you're reading it. Watson, who had finally settled there as a planter, was accused of killing about 50 people, including the outlaw Belle Starr, and it is impossible to know how much of that was myth, but his neighbors were so frightened of him that they finally did him in.
The second novel in the trilogy to be published was Lost Man's RIver (1998), about Edgar's son Lucius, a college professor, going back to the Everglades, in the 1960s I guess, to try to find the truth about his father's death. The Everglades is still a friontier, and as usual in Matthiessen's work, the animals and the landscape play a big part, but the characters are terrifyingly real. The last to be published was Bone By Bone (1999), E.J. Watson's own story, in the first person, beginning during the Civil War when he was a small boy and ending with his killing. But I suspect Matthiessen wrote them and published them in the order in which he wanted them to be read. There's nothing else like them.
Then in 2008 he had polished them, done some re-writing and shortened them by about 300 pages, and published a single-volume edition of about 1000 pages called Shadow Country. This won another National Book Award, of which some critics disapproved, because it only recycled old work. I looked at this book at Barnes & Noble this morning but decided not to buy it, because I still have the three originals. Mattheissen's last novel, Lost Paradise, to be published any day now, is about tourists visiting Auschwitz, and more generally, to judge from the single review I have seen, about how to try to understand the Holocaust.
I am going to keep an eye out for second-hand copies of Matthiessen's other books. As if I don't already have too many books.
April 7, 2014
And Mickey Rooney
Mickey Rooney has died, aged 93. He was one of several people to be married to Ava Gardner. Not as important a contributor to the culture as Matthiessen, I don't suppose, but an endearingly talented man who reinvented himself several times after starting as a teen star in the 1930s. In the early 1960s, for example, he played a psychotic criminal called Ooftus Goofus in a TV melodrama, and was genuinely creepy. Thanks for all the entertainment, old fellow!
April 3, 2014
The trees are nice
I'm not crazy about the Lehigh Valley. Too densely populated, too much traffic, tiny little two-lane roads across the mountains, an errand on a weekday afternoon is like trying to get to the beach on a holiday weekend. It all makes me want to go somewhere else. But the trees at sundown have a lovely light on them -- my camera can't really do it justice.
April 3, 2014
A message from Google:
I am unaware of having a Google "account", though I suppose I do, because I belong to a Google chat group, and you can't do anything on the Internet without joining, registering, signing up, giving them everything except your underwear size.
April 3, 2014
In the Wall Street Journal today, Charles G. Koch writes "I'm Fighting to Restore a Free Society". His op-ed piece is full of praise for himself, while I know a patch of Michigan that Koch owns where there used to be a chemical factory and that desperately needs to be cleaned up. But thanks to the Supreme Court Koch will find it easier than ever to buy politicians. ["Pssst! Hey mister! Wanna buy a congressmen? got a bogo on now, buy one get one free!]
Another op-ed is called "Why the Senate Races Will Soon Get Ugly". I see it's by Karl Rove, so I'm not reading it. The races will get ugly if they hire Karl Rove.
And a letter-writer thinks that the reason fewer people are going to the movies nowadays is because they don't have ushers anymore. I don't know about that, but if we had ushers today, would they have to be armed?
But Steve Case writes another op-ed, "Hey Washington, the JOBS Act You Passed Is Working". It begins,
How'd they let some good news through?
April 1, 2014
Making herself at home
The new addition to the family is Betty, who is six years old and spent her entire life until last month in a cage in a puppy farm. She doesn't quite know how to be a dog, but she is coming around quickly: already loves to cuddle.
April 1, 2014
Not much news
There is not much to blog about, frankly. I've been downloading dozens of chamber music concerts, thanks to Thomas in Europe, who has a hell of a collection taped off the radio and is housebound with a broken bone in his foot. Otherwise three hours each way to Washington DC weekend before last, then Ethne had surgery on her paw for a carpal tunnel problem (she's perfectly cheerful and will be fine), so helping her around the house and driving her back and forth to work. Then suddenly a four-hour round trip to Wilmington Delaware to collect a rescue dog...
The news is just depressing. CNN has been yapping for weeks about nothing but the missing Malaysian airliner, a tragedy to be sure, but there is nothing to report. Yet while Putin is playing junior Hitler in Ukraine and dozens of people are dead in a mudslide near Seattle, CNN's ratings are up nearly 100%, Clarence Page reports, thanks to people glued to watching Don Lemon play with a toy airplane. This does not speak well for the intelligence of our species.
And just now I saw a video from a Hispanic source of a dozen or so Christian men, kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, murdered by a mob with guns in "Siria", just like the newsreels of Germans murdering Jews 70 years ago. What's the point in blogging?
March 18, 2014
The latest world affair
On Sunday there was a phony referendum in Crimea, in which people were not allowed to vote "no", as in a good old-fashioned Communist election. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal said on its front page that "More than 95% of Crimeans voted to break away from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, according to preliminary results". Thus my favorite newspaper has disapponted me grievously. Are we supposed to believe that 100% of the qualified voters in Crimea actually took part in such a farce? It is possible, I suppose, that 95% of the Russians who voted want to go back to Russia, back to the corruption that they have always known, rather than to grow up, but this leaves out the Tatars, the Ukrainians and the more intelligent young people of every nationality in Crimea.
The story continued the story inside about possible sanctions, "which diplomats say could initially affect about 20 top Russian officials". Good grief! Every Russian citizen who has any assets whatever in the USA or in any European country should have those assets frozen and their visas cancelled NOW, and Putin's gangster friends would decide that starting a new cold war is not such a good idea after all.
Where are the Churchills and the Reagans when we need them?