Archive for April, 2013

In Quest of Infinite Jest: A Non-Book Review (A post-modern post)

April 30, 2013

imagesDavid Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest is a literary/cultural icon, a sprawling phantasmagoric landmark of modern – or should I say post-modern or post-post-modern – fiction. Wherever writers write about writing, Infinite Jest and its author are mentioned so often it’s like a tic. While drafting this blog post, I had the radio on, with an author interview, and she cited Infinite Jest. As did Maureen Dowd in a column I read just an hour later.Unknown

Sadly, Wallace, after achieving such acclaim, in 2008, committed suicide. But perhaps that was what really turbocharged his literary reputation — as in Van Gogh’s case, a great career move.

Anyway, feeling bludgeoned by ubiquitous obeisances to this book, I finally say to myself: OK, OKI should read it!

Of course, I could go to a bookstore or library or Amazon. But several local libraries run fantastic used book sales, of which I’m a devotee. For just a buck or two, I find lots of books I can sell (mainly on ancient history); for gifts; and of course to read. So I started to look out for Infinite Jest.

images-1Several years, and quite a few sales later, no luck. It began to seem bizarre. One of the most mooned about books of modern times – you’d imagine some copies were sold, to turn up in used book sales. But the more I failed to find it, the more determined I became. And it’s not some slim little volume that might be overlooked, but a 1,000+ page behemoth you could hardly miss.

The most recent sale had table after table of fat novels, all those Pattersons and Koontzes and Picoults, etc., at which normally I turn up my nose. But this sea of dreck I now set about searching, for just one, a needle in a haystack, a holy grail,images-2 almost maniacally, like Ahab obsessed with his white whale, spurring myself on: “This time I shall not be denied.” Like it had to be there, had to be, if only I looked hard enough. But yet again my quest met with defeat. I found no Infinite Jest. Not even A Little Jest. No Jest whatsoever.

So I cannot give you my usual snarky book review. Perhaps Infinite Jest doesn’t, after all, really exist. Maybe that itself is the infinite jest.

UPDATE MAY 4 — The great thing about the Schenectady Library’s book sales, in addition to hugeosity, is that the books are very well sorted, with the prime fiction section alphabetized by author. At today’s starting bell, I dove straight for W, and THERE IT WAS. Such a big fat book I actually could spot my prey from halfway across the room.
Now all I need do is read it.

 

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Syria’s Red Line – Or Is It Merely Pinkish?

April 27, 2013
Reuters, March 23, near Aleppo. (Humans died too)

Reuters, March 23, near Aleppo. (Humans died too)

There is good evidence (soil samples, victim images) that Syria’s regime has used chemical weapons (Sarin, and possibly Chlorine gas), according to Britain, France, and Israel.

The Brits call this a war crime. Really? As if aerial bombing of residential neighborhoods, torturing young children, killing over 70,000 people, mostly civilians, and driving out millions as refugees, are not war crimes enough? (I ask again: where is the International Criminal Court? Why not one indictment?)images

When President Obama declared that Assad’s using chemical weapons would cross a “red line,” requiring U.S. action, I thought it an empty gesture because once made, using such weapons would be crazy. But maybe Assad knew his man better, and is “crazy like a fox” – using a swodge of chemicals just to show up America as a paper tiger that won’t stop him, thus bolstering his backers’ resolve and demoralizing opponents.

Obama insists on more proof. But as The Economist put it, this “look[s] less like healthy skepticism than an unwillingness to take action” – “unfortunately, all of a piece with Mr. Obama’s lawyerly approach to the whole issue.”

As The Economist further observes, America’s squeamishness “is worsening a dreadful situation,” with the rebels becoming increasingly radicalized as it drags on. Meantime, with the killing unabated in a stalemated war, millions of refugees in dire straits, destabilizing neighbor countries, and sectarian bloodshed spreading, Obama’s “arguing about soil samples hardly seems like an adequate response.”

Experience shows that there is a kind of situation where reluctance to face a need for active involvement merely guarantees worse consequences down the road. We should have learned this from Rwanda, and from Bosnia. Now, alas, we’re being taught it again in Syria. “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”

images-1Furthermore, as The Economist concludes, to let Assad cross a red line with impunity sends the wrong message when we’re telling the world that Iran’s building nuclear weapons will cross a red line.

Alexei Navalny and the Kremlin Kriminals

April 24, 2013

imagesMikhail Khodorkovsky was one of Russia’s richest men, and among them all, possibly the most above board. Yet Putin’s Kremlin Kriminals, in 2003, used trumped up tax evasion charges to effectively steal his company and toss Khodorkovsky in prison, where he still remains. His real crime was funding political opposition to Putin.

images-1Sergei Magnitsky wasn’t so lucky. His “crime” was to expose massive official corruption, which resulted in those selfsame officials imprisoning him, where he does not still remain. The 37 year old lawyer died in his cell in 2009.

But the Putin regime isn’t letting this case rest. No sirree, they’re determined to get to the bottom of the crimes in question – by putting Magnitsky on trial, despite having already murdered him. And when America adopted sanctions on the Kremlin Krooks deemed responsible, their retaliatory response was to ban adoption of Russian children by Americans.

UnknownNow we have Alexei Navalny. This courageous political blogger too was very effective in exposing official corruption, and played a leading role in last year’s anti-Putin demonstrations. So Russia’s judicial system has set about prosecuting – no, not the corrupt officials Navalny fingered, don’t be silly – why, Navalny, of course. He’s on trial now for alleged embezzlement from a state timber company while he was advisor to a regional governor. As The Economist put it, that the company was actually paid for the timber in question, and there’s no evidence Navalny had a role in the transaction anyway, “seem to be details.” He faces up to 10 years in prison. Don’t bet on acquittal.

And the real criminal is . . .

And the real criminal is . . .

I had the privilege of visiting Russia when it was a free country. How thrilling that was. How tragic it is now. Martin Luther King once said the moral arc of the universe is long but it always bends toward justice. I have a dream – to see Russia again, and forevermore, free at last, free at last.

America on Disability

April 20, 2013

Unknown-2NPR’s “This American Life” broadcast a report by Chana Joffe-Walt about the Disability system. It’s a real eye-opener. (click here; or, for a text version, here.)

The ranks of non-working people collecting government disability benefits have nearly doubled in 15 years, to 14 million. Yet they are ignored in employment/unemployment numbers. Every month we’re told how many jobs the economy added – but not how many people went on disability – usually more. (Thus while the “unemployment rate” (currently 7.6%) keeps going down, the percentage of people actually employed also declines.)

images-1Three big factors ought to be reducing disability rolls. The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act aimed to remove barriers to their employment. Medical advances make more health conditions fixable or manageable. And thirdly, automation and a decline in physically demanding jobs, in favor of the service sector and desk jobs, should enable more people with health issues to work.

Yet despite all this the disability system is ballooning. Why? What NPR’s report makes clear is that it has, de facto, become a hidden welfare program. Disability benefits go to many people not because they physically can’t work but because they’re not employable. They lack the education and/or skills to participate in today’s economy. That’s their “disability.”

This outcome is promoted by what Joffe-Walt calls the “Disability-Industrial complex.” But who, you might ask, could profit from this? images-2Well – lawyers, for one. There’s a whole genre of firms that heavily advertise their specialty of winning disability benefits for clients. The system’s rules give such lawyers a direct cut of the government’s pay-outs.

NPR noted that in normal adversarial hearings (where I spent my career), a lawyer for one side is opposed by one representing the other. But in disability hearings, there is no one speaking up for the other side – for the government and its taxpayers who’ll have to pay if the claimant lawyer wins. No wonder those lawyers usually do win, making this practice so lucrative.

Another part of the Disability-Industrial complex is state governments. If someone’s on welfare, the state pays; on disability, the federal government pays. States have figured this out, and have mounted big efforts to move people from welfare to disability. One large private company makes its money helping states do this.

Disability recipient (colored finger disorder)

Disability recipient (colored finger disorder)

Now, you may also be surprised that a major part of the disability population is: kids.

It’s called “Supplemental Security Income,” and has grown sevenfold in three decades, to 1.3 million child recipients. They’re supposed to be disabled in getting through school. But they become cash cows for their parents. NPR profiled one kid who actually seemed to be thriving in school; and of course his mother wants him to; but not so much that the disability bureaucrats will notice and stop the payments.

I don’t want to imply people live high on the hog on disability benefits. The payments are small, they can’t earn any extra, so are really stuck in poverty. But meantime disability payments now consume a quarter of a trillion dollars annually, more than food stamps and conventional welfare combined. It’s a rotten picture all around.

In a democracy, government is supposed to do voters’ bidding, and they pay for it through taxes. But I don’t think voters and taxpayers were ever asked about this disability monster. It’s a key problem of modern government: programs mutating far beyond anything contemplated at their start, with no brake, no accountability. It just happens. (Well, in fact it doesn’t just happen – self-interested people like lawyers – and of course we’re all self-interested – make it happen for their own benefit.) And notice that in the recent “sequester,” things like air traffic controllers are being cut, but not programs like disability.

Unknown-1Paying for disability ultimately has to come from what actual working people earn and produce. And disability is just part of our larger economic challenge: an ever smaller population percentage actually working and producing, to pay for all those not doing so: the “disabled,” the welfare recipients, the unemployed, the kids in school till ever later ages, and of course the vast numbers living ever longer in retirement drawing pensions and racking up ever larger health care bills. All this on the backs of the shrinking core of people who produce.

As I’ve stressed till blue in the face, Unknown-3we can no longer tolerate an education system so crappy that millions don’t even finish high school and millions are relegated to lifetime “disability” benefits because they’re not employable. And how bizarre that with so many citizens not working, we’re so hostile to foreigners who want to come here to work. Without getting more people in productive employment, America will go bust.

This is Who I Want Here

April 18, 2013

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Immaculee Ilibagiza, survivor of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and author of a best-selling book about it, pledging allegiance at her U.S. citizenship ceremony Wednesday in New York. (Photos by Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press)

Welcome to America, Immaculee.

Boston

April 16, 2013

imagesWhen President Obama said Americans are standing with Boston, I was reminded that we stood in solidarity with Boston before – before, indeed, there actually was a United States of America, in 1774 – also confronting a common enemy.

I’ve also heard much commentary that we’ll never feel safe again. That implies we did feel safe, before Monday. Well, if the 3000 dead on 9/11 had already slipped from our consciousness, surely even sooner will the three Boston dead. That bespeaks not callousness but resilience.

But what does feeling safe mean? Who on this planet has ever been “safe”? One woman on the radio said she now worried about her husband, walking to work, being victim of a bomb. Had she never feared his being hit by a car (vastly more likely)? And, no matter what precautions we take, death is not just a danger, it’s a certainty.

That’s the human condition, but we do carry on, we go about our business, live our lives, in spite of it. Fear of car crashes doesn’t paralyze us, nor do all the other myriad threats – including bombs. Bombs fell nightly on London during the blitz, but even then its citizens got out of bed each morning. That is the nobility of human life.

It also makes such terrorist acts so maddeningly pointless. Yes, these atrocities do terrify us, yet they cannot alter our human nature. If we got over 9/11*, what makes the Boston villains envision some different result? What could they hope to accomplish?

The will to harm fellow creatures is baffling. We are all in the same sinking boat (life), nothing we do can change that, but shouldn’t our joint fate engender compassion?

Well, it does, of course; and the acts of compassion in Boston dwarfed the bombers’ acts of malice. I go back to Steven Pinker’s book about the decline of violence (reviewed by me here). Violence has indeed been playing a diminishing role in human affairs, and a basic reason is that people have simply learned better ways to gain their ends. How tragic, though, that there are still some who didn’t get the memo.

* Well, admittedly, while we the people did get over 9/11, that being our nature, unfortunately the government did not; and that’s its nature; with thousands of people whose job it becomes to not get over it. America was harmed more after 9/11 by what government did than by what the terrorists did.

Free Market Economics and eBay

April 13, 2013

imagesI have criticized critics of capitalism and market economics. Mostly, what they denounce is either a straw-man caricature, or else a very small part of a very large phenomenon. While of course there are problems, as with any aspect of human life, if you think about it the great bulk of what you spend money on you’re very glad to get. But what people like me defend is not simply “markets” but free markets. Competition is essential; with it, businesses keep each other in check, and consumers win. Without it, beware. (And too often regulation of markets impedes competition.)

It’s easy to see the behavioral difference competition makes. Take eBay. I buy a lot of stuff there; I even used it to buy an ISBN number! (What’s that? Look it up.) The eBay market is fiercely competitive, and my experience dealing with sellers has been overwhelmingly positive.

UnknownBut the company eBay itself is virtually a monopoly; akin to a “natural monopoly” (like your electric utility) where having multiple competitors wouldn’t really work. Once eBay established itself as “the” online auction site, where buyers find the most sellers and vice versa, no competing site could gain traction. And, with no real competitors, eBay’s customer service is unsurprisingly atrocious.

I recently returned a rare coin to Germany. Since registered mail each way takes several weeks, I didn’t know I had a problem until two months after my payment. I thought I was protected by eBay rules; but when I tried to open a “case,” by e-mail, I was told the window is only 45 days.

images-1Now the fun begins. I want to talk to somebody at eBay about this. Trying to phone gets nowhere; recordings tell you to click on “live help” on eBay’s website. Too bad there’s no such place to click. My further e-mails generate a comedy of repetitive non-responsive boiler-plate replies, with more instructions to use website features that don’t exist, as well as non-working telephone numbers to call. After continuing to complain about all this, I finally get a response in German. I reply (in German) images-2that I don’t speak German. No answer. I send a snail-mail complaint letter to eBay’s president. No answer.

(I have posted online most of the e-mail exchange; if you’ve got nothing better to do, click here).

This is what you get when there’s no competition. Will I stop using eBay? No; there’s alternative. And they know that.

Postal Service Poster Boy

Postal Service Poster Boy

Another case: U.S. Postal Service. Four big registered packages mailed the same day all stolen by a postal employee, they told me. Would they pay on the insurance? Nope. Claims denied: my dealer pricelist, customer orders, and invoices did not prove the value. Eventually, after going through hell with them, they paid. But be warned, absent unimpeachable documentation of value, postal “insurance” is basically a scam.

In contrast, I recently sold my lifelong collection of early Chinese coins, through an auction firm in Germany, Teutoburger Munzauktion. Why? I’d been favorably impressed by their operation. This is another ferociously competitive market. And Teutoburger provided outstanding customer service. Another case was the printing of my recent book, Angels and Pinheads, by 48HrBooks. Again, a highly competitive arena of business. And again, the customer service was outstanding, beyond what one might have expected.

This is why I am a free marketeer.

“Up yours, my policies helped the poor more than any damn socialist ever did.”

April 10, 2013
Cartoon by Jim Morin, Miami Herald

Cartoon by Jim Morin, Miami Herald

Margaret Thatcher: The Lady’s Not for Turning

April 8, 2013

Margaret Thatcher was a great hero. The model of a politician who was in it not to be something but to do something. And boy, what she did.

Margaret Roberts, grocer's daughter, elected to Parliament, 1951, on her second try.

Margaret Roberts, grocer’s daughter, candidate for Parliament, 1951, her second try; elected 1959

Thatcher became Britain’s first woman prime minister at a time when that was amazing. It’s no longer true in modern nations that a woman must be twice as good as a man to get half as far; but it was true in the ‘70s. Margaret Thatcher rising, from modest antecedents, to surmount not only those gender obstacles but immense political obstacles as well, makes her a promethean figure.

Indeed, when she came to power in 1979, the gender novelty was a footnote. Britain was in deep trouble; it was called “British disease,” the final legacy of three decades of socialism and, particularly, labor unions holding government by the balls. It wasn’t that Thatcher lacked that anatomical feature; rather, hers were too big for the unions to squeeze. imagesShe broke their power, showing how entrenched interests can be overcome with sufficient political will. She also lifted the smothering blanket of statist paternalism to resuscitate economic vitality. British disease was cured.

Eurocrat Jean-Claude Juncker is often quoted: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.” What rot. Margaret Thatcher gave a famous speech acknowledging the political pressures for a policy U-turn. “You turn if you want to,” she said; “the lady’s not for turning.”* Unlike Juncker, she trusted voters, and believed that right policies can be successfully defended in public debate. And, despite vicious opposition, she did get re-elected, twice. (In 1990, her own Conservative party, to its eternal shame, lost its will and dumped her.)

UnknownHer first re-election did owe something to the Falklands War. In 1982, an Argentine junta thought to curry popularity by grabbing the Falkland Islands, a British possession. They didn’t imagine an enfeebled old European nation would actually fight them. But fight them Margaret Thatcher did, and not just with words. She sent the fleet.

I see her still as Britannia, with helmet and spear, standing resolute on the prow of a warship, steaming toward the Falklands.

*It’s a pun on the title of a play about Joan of Arc, “The Lady’s Not for Burning.”

“Ask” — A Very Personal Story

April 3, 2013

There’s a radio show called “The Moth” where people get up and tell stories, often highly personal and self-revelatory. I’ve wondered what story I might tell. Well, here’s one.

When I was a kid, I was sick a lot, and small and shy, and skipped some years of school making me younger than my peers, all of which retarded my social development. I must have been the youngest in my law school class, and still lived at home. I had little interaction with anyone, let alone with girls – unthinkable for me while under parental scrutiny. My hormones were normal, but I just repressed it.

UnknownIn 1970, almost 23, I became a lawyer and moved away, and finally felt free to pursue women. It was akin to a new toy when I discovered I could get dates on the slenderest of pretexts. Like a supermarket check-out girl: “Hey, I’ve seen you in the cafeteria,” I said. “Wanna go out?” She did. Quite attractive and intellectual too.

So I dated a lot. But building a relationship was a different matter. How a couple reaches a concordance to have sex was a mystery to this still inhibited and somewhat clueless fellow. I wanted more, a real intimacy (especially because I still didn’t actually have friends), but it seemed elusive.

Active in politics, it was at a 1971 political meeting that I first met “Jane McCall.” School board candidate, wife of “John” (my ward leader, a charismatic man with a romantic Scottish burr), mother of two, Jane was thirty, petite, honey-colored, lovely, articulate, vivacious, enthralling. I suddenly saw everything I desired in a woman. On the spot, I all but fell in love with her.

Edvard Much: "Despair"

Edvard Munch: “Despair”

I walked home with a leaden ball of despair in my heart. Of course Jane was unattainable; that was a given; but how could I ever hope for one like her? Jane McCall made all the girls I’d been chasing seem trivial, third-rate, a waste of time. It wasn’t that Jane herself was out of reach; the ideal she represented felt unattainable.

Years went by; further Jane McCall encounters only intensified the feeling. Meanwhile, with the girls I dated, sometimes a relationship might seem to be developing, but it never panned out. I would see romantic couples everywhere, and yearn for what they had.

In 1974 there was “Rosemary Ryan.” A tall, long-haired, slender sylph, warm, funny, gentle, smart. After our first date, her reaction was an enthusiastic, “Wow!” I could hardly believe this; virtually Jane McCall caliber. We dated for a while, it was lovely, we seemed like soulmates, and of course I ached to take it to the next level. But she confided that she was having an affair with a guy she couldn’t even talk to, who only wanted her for sex. She even took me to a party where I met him. What fun. In the end, Rosemary avowed, weeping copious tears, that she and I could never be lovers. Her last words to me: “You haven’t suffered enough.” Well, maybe; but I thought I was suffering plenty right then.

imagesA vicious cycle was operating. The more I wasn’t having sex, the more intimidating it seemed. In hindsight, some girls I dated might have been seducible, but I was too timorous. I felt myself sexually handicapped. I wasn’t bad looking, but rather short, and realized this was a deal-breaker for many women (including, finally, Rosemary). But it seemed there was more to it. I came to feel like a sort of untouchable, wearing sign on my back reading, “Don’t have sex with this man.” Or maybe even, “This is not a man.”

I had dated a fellow lawyer during stints at hearings in New York City. In my usual timid pattern, I had tried to get romantic – up to a point – but when “Karen” failed to say, “take my clothes off,” I would desist and say goodnight. But, unusually in this case, after the relationship fizzled, I continued to see her occasionally as a friend. Following the Rosemary Ryan debacle, I opened up to Karen about my problem. And she explained to me The Facts of Life. How a woman has sexual desires too, but may be shy and inhibited, waiting, even hoping, for the man to be the initiator, and probably wouldn’t slap him. Karen’s sage advice came down to one word: just “ask.”*images-1

This sounded like a good plan, and I resolved to try it at the earliest opportunity.

Soon after, an acquaintance told me his wife had left him. I assured him how sorry I was to hear this terrible news. Then I ran to the phone and asked her out. She, after pondering for some minutes, said yes.

Following dinner, we went to my tiny one room apartment on some vague pretext of playing chess. images-2Sitting on the bed, she said, “Well, what now?”

Taking a deep breath, I replied, “We could play chess, or . . . go to bed.”

Good God, I had said it.

Her hand rose to my cheek, but not to slap it. I’ll never forget the look in her eyes – an uprush of hunger.

In that instant my life was transformed; from black-and-white to Technicolor.  And this was not just any woman. This was Jane McCall caliber.

In fact, it was Jane McCall.

Unknown-1It’s so ironic. I’d dated a parade of girls, some second rate, or third rate, some borderline sluts, and not with any of them had I been brash enough to just “ask.” Now here is Jane McCall, the one woman I’d worshipped, on a pedestal, for years, the unreachable dream incarnate, and the first moment I’m alone with her, almost vulgarly, I just “ask.” And she leaps into my arms.

My romance with Jane did not last long. A callow lover, I myself was not Jane McCall caliber. Even naked in my arms she was still a fantasy for me. And losing her didn’t even hurt, because afterward I was a different man. No longer was I the man with the sign on his back. Now I was The Man Who’d Slept With Jane McCall.

Another irony is that never again would I “just ask” – at least not so crudely. In 1975 I met a girl with whom I spent twelve years. It was a troubled relationship, and she finally left me. Within another year, I found Therese, and we’ve been happily married for almost a quarter century. In relation to all those I’d ever pursued, Therese is absolutely the finest of the lot. And I’m more in love with her now than ever; still constantly viewing our marriage through the lens of my history four decades past. It’s this story that brought me, by a long tortuous path, to Therese; and this story that makes our love so powerful for me.

* “Ask” became a chapter heading in my autobiographical memoir. Years later I read physicist Richard Feynman’s, and was amused to see a similar chapter heading: “You just ask them.” (His answer, too, for bedding women.)