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?
March 16, 2014
History does not repeat itself
Well, history repeats itself as farce, somebody once said. Putin is not Stalin. Today he is making an ass of himself in Crimea with a phony referendum, while most of Ukraine wants to free itself from a century of stupidity and corruption in Russia. He will not last forever in any case, but I wish our president was more resolute. The Russian economy is so shaky that we don't have to fear war with that country; it is a house of cards and all we'd have to do is breathe on it, like Reagan did.
March 16, 2014
The SAT test: ho hum
There seems to be a great deal in the papers about changes in the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is misnamed to begin with. I can't read about it because my eyes glaze over so fast, the next thing I know it's bedtime.
Nearly 60 years ago I took the SAT test two or three times when I was in high school. Math and science were always my worst subjects, but I could never get an 'A' in anything; English was always my best subject, but I almost didn't graduate from high school at all on account of Senior English. (The soporific teacher Ruth Breiseth told me that she was disappointed in me. I then went on to write several books, which no doubt caused her to spin in her grave.) Nevertheless, every time I took the SAT test, ALL my scores were way above average. Even math and science.
What the hell kind of test is that?
Maybe all the kids in Kenosha were above average?
March 16, 2014
Why it is useful to have a long life
Everything seems to come around again as farce. Over 60 years ago I used to go visit my Grandma Clarke, a hoity-toity ex-schoolteacher who adored me. She didn't want me to read comic books, but she didn't want me to read anything when I came to see her, and she would scold me because she subscribed to lots of good magazines and I'd have my nose stuck in them instead of talking to her.
Among the mags was Popular Science, or Popular Mechanics, I forget which, or maybe both. Back then they were small format mags, like the Readers Digest (which Grandma Clarke did not subscribe to. For that we relied on the dentist's office.) And over 60 years ago I read the auto mechanics' tips in one of those magazines. An ignition switch was acting up, and it was a complete mystery, until the mechanic noticed that the driver had a huge set of keys on his key ring. The conclusion was that the weight of the key ring had worn the ignition switch so that it had become unreliable.
Over 60 years later, General Motors is having to recall 1.6 million cars because 12 people (or 13, depending on which newspaper you're reading) have been killed in accidents that may have been due to ignition switch problems. And of course in modern cars if the ignition switch fails the steering locks, doesn't it? An anti-theft device much-loved by powerful insurance companies, which means that if the ignition switch cuts out at 60 miles per hour, you can't steer the car. Who needs that?
Meanwhile, working at the cash register in a big-box store in a shopping mall, a disturbing number of customers, who don't know that they're going to have to pay until they get to the till, are searching their pockets and handbags for their wallet, envelope, money clip, credit card, whatever, and exposing for all to see their key rings, which are often loaded with strings of keys, charms, bangles, horseshoes for good luck, pictures of their children, everything you can think of.
And this is the fault of General Motors because...?