Archive for April 3rd, 2012
Joe Nocera explains in the NY Times why people hate banks:
A few months ago, I was standing in a crowded elevator when Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, stepped in. When he saw me, he said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear: “Why does The New York Times hate the banks?”
It’s not The New York Times, Mr. Dimon. It really isn’t. It’s the country that hates the banks these days. If you want to understand why, I would direct your attention to the bible of your industry, The American Banker. On Monday, it published the third part in its depressing — and infuriating — series on credit card debt collection practices [two links thee, both good. - LG].
You can’t read the series without wondering whether banks have learned anything from the foreclosure crisis, which resulted in a $25 billion settlement with the federal government and the states. That crisis was the direct result of shoddy, often illegal practices on the part of the banks, which caused untold misery for millions of Americans. Part of the goal of the settlement was simply to force the banks to treat homeowners with some decency. You wouldn’t think that that would be too much to ask. But it was never going to happen without the threat of litigation.
As it turns out, this same kind of awful behavior has been taking place inside the credit card collections departments of the big banks. Records are a mess. Robo-signing has been commonplace. Collections practices hurt primarily the poor and the unsophisticated, just like foreclosure practices. (I sometimes wonder if banks would make any profits at all if they couldn’t take advantage of the poor and unsophisticated.)
At Dimon’s bank, JPMorgan Chase, according to Jeff Horwitz, the author of the American Banker series, the records used by outside law firms to sue people who had defaulted on credit card debt “sometimes differed from . . .
Last night I watched a very interesting, highly stylized, mash-up of movie genres, a movie with a lot of snap and crackle. I loved it. Bunraku. YMMinexplicablyV.
This afternoon I read A Reverence for Wood, by Eric Sloane, before sending it off to The Younger Grandson. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, stop soon by your local library, which doubtless has his books in profusion. The content primarily consists of fascinating descriptions of antique lore, fully illustrated and labeled. A Reverence for Wood would be a good starting place: short, and gives you a good sense of the character of his work.
His books were (and are) enormously popular, and they’re not the sort of book lightly tossed into the trash, so check the secondhand sites if you get hooked: I use Abebooks.com a lot and always with full satisfaction.
UPDATE: I just remembered why I happened to be reading A Reverence for Wood at this time: it was a Cool Tool.
I made new batch of pepper sauce (mostly green jalapeños, but also a handful of serrano, about a dozen habaneros, a small can of chipotles in adobo, two dried anchos, and a dozen dried chipotles—white vinegar to cover, add 1/3 c salt, blend to smoothness, bring to boil and simmer for 20 min, let cool 20 min, blend again, and bottle). I now have enough for another couple of months, by which time red Fresno peppers will be back, I hope. (I would love to buy ripe, red jalapeños—and come to think of it, cayenne peppers were around last year and made superb pepper sauce.)
And since I had the blender out, this recipe caught my eye—well, had the blender out and saw the words “semi-sweet chocolate” and realized making them would be a snap—I have a shopping list for tomorrow. :)
Notice what countries other than the US—that is, countries still not controlled by business—are doing. A report in The Scientist by Jef Akst:
In 2010, Canada added Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that has been linked to heart disease, certain cancers, and other health problems, to its list of toxic substances, and Canada, the European Union and 11 US states have banned the chemical in baby bottles. But BPA will not yet be banned from US canned products, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on Friday (March 30).
Research suggests that BPA causes a variety of human health effects by mimicking estrogen, and thus affecting aspects of development and normal physiological functioning. Industry groups, however, argue that the studies are not powered with appropriate controls and sample sizes, and that solid evidence linking BPA to these illnesses was lacking. But Campbell’s Soup, at least, announced it would be phasing out BPA from its products.
The current FDA decision was prompted by a lawsuit filed last August by the environmental group National Resources Defense Council. It is not a “final safety determination,” the agency stated, adding that it plans to continue “to support research examining the safety of BPA,” a Nature blog reported.
While the decision is expected to meet some opposition, “my opinion is that it is prudent,” Scott Belcher, an endocrine-disruptor expert at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, told Nature. “There are still a lot of data coming out.”
Getting away from the needle—something faster, cheaper, better, and painless.
Interesting how culture seems to grow: a slow start, thousands and thousands of years in which not much progress seemed to be made, though by then culture itself was beginning to shape human evolution, with those most adept at cultural skills being more successful. It’s thought now that proto-humans first began using fire deliberately about 2 million years ago, a time span compatible with evolutionary change and development. Bruce Bower reports in Science News a recent discovery of a fire that our remote ancestors sat around 1 million years ago:
A 1 million-year-old fire lit by human ancestors has flickered back to life in a South Africa cave.
Microscopic plant ashes and burned bone bits in Wonderwerk Cave come from soil that previously yielded several dozen stone tools, say archaeologist Francesco Berna of Boston University and his colleagues. A member of the Homo genus, perhaps Homo erectus, made a fire that produced those remains, the researchers write April 2 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Berna’s team regards its data as the oldest secure evidence for controlled fire use. The ashes and charred bone — unearthed earlier in Wonderwerk Cave by Peter Beaumont of the McGregor Museum in Kimberley, South Africa — show no signs of having been carried there by wind, water or wildfires. . .
When governments turn on their own citizens, the results are ugly. In Syria, the world watches as people die. These two articles are gut-wrenching:
In rare interviews, Syrian ex-soldiers talk of killing civilians: Roy Gutman reports for McClatchy:
Former Syrian soldiers who’ve escaped to northern Iraq are telling grisly stories of how their units executed unarmed civilians for demonstrating against the Assad regime and staged mass reprisals when residents shot back, on one occasion lining up and shooting 30 defenseless civilians.
The former soldiers — Syrian Kurds who’ve crossed the mountainous border into Iraq’s Kurdistan region in small groups over the past three months, a group that now totals well more than 400 — also brought tales of colleagues being shot for not firing on civilians. One former special-forces noncommissioned officer even said he suspected that other government troops had orchestrated an ambush his unit endured, in an effort to motivate the unit to kill civilians.
Members of a special United Nations commission of inquiry said they’d heard many reports of soldiers being shot for not shooting civilians but that they hadn’t been able to confirm them. The U.N. investigators said they hadn’t heard reports of government-staged ambushes against its own forces. . .
Defectors: Torture of children, rape by Syrian army ‘routine’: Another McClatchy report by Roy Gutman:
In addition to shooting unarmed civilians, Syrian military personnel routinely have raped women and girls, tortured children and encouraged troops to loot the houses they storm, former foot soldiers say.
“What I have seen with my own eyes, it was indescribable,” said Rolat Azad, 21, who said he’d served as a master sergeant in Idlib province in the northeast of Syria. There, he commanded 10 men who’d break into houses seeking to arrest men whose names they’d been given by the country’s intelligence agencies. “They gave us orders: ‘You are free to do what you like,’ ” he recalled.
Starting last July, he said, his unit arrested and tortured five to 10 people daily. “We had a torture room on our base,” he said. “There was physical torture — beatings — and psychological tortures,” said Azad, a Syrian Kurd who deserted and fled in March to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “They also brought women and girls through. They put them in the closed room and called soldiers to rape them.”
The women often were killed, he said.
Azad — as with other former soldiers here, the name is a pseudonym assumed to protect his family, still in Syria — was interviewed at a camp that Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government set up for Syrian army deserters. He recalled the torture of two young teenage boys. He said they’d been arrested either for shooting videos of the military or showing disrespect for the military and the regime, something that wasn’t uncommon, even among children. “I once asked a small kid why he wasn’t going to school,” Azad said. “He said, ‘We won’t until this regime is gone.’ “
One boy, about 13, . . .
Purchased in 2010 for $9.6 million, a new record for a manuscript sale, the original version of Casanova’s erotic memoir has achieved the status of a French sacred relic. At least, gaining access to its famously risqué pages is now a solemn process, heavy with Old World pomp. After a lengthy correspondence to prove my credentials, I made my way on a drizzly afternoon to the oldest wing of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, a grandiose Baroque edifice on rue de Richelieu near the Louvre. Within those hallowed halls, built around a pair of ancien régime aristocratic mansions, I waited by marble statues of the greats of French literature, Rousseau, Molière and Voltaire, before being led through a domed reading room filled with scholars into the private sanctum of the library offices. After traipsing up and down endless stairwells and half-lit corridors, I was eventually seated in a special reading room overlooking a stone courtyard. Here, Marie-Laure Prévost, the head curator of the manuscript department, ceremoniously presented two black archival boxes on the wooden desk before me.
As I eagerly scanned the elegant, precise script in dark brown ink, however, the air of formality quickly vanished. Madame Prévost, a lively woman in a gray turtleneck and burgundy jacket, could not resist recounting how the head of the library, Bruno Racine, had traveled to a secret meeting in a Zurich airport transit lounge in 2007 to first glimpse the document, which ran to some 3,700 pages and had been hidden away in private hands since Casanova died in 1798. The French government promptly declared its intention to obtain the legendary pages, although it took some two and a half years before an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to purchase them for la patrie. “The manuscript was in wonderful condition when it arrived here,” said Prévost. “The quality of the paper and the ink is excellent. It could have been written yesterday.
“Look!” She held up one of the pages to the window light, revealing a distinctive watermark—two hearts touching. “We don’t know if Casanova deliberately chose this or it was a happy accident.”
This reverential treatment of the manuscript would have gratified Casanova enormously. When he died, he had no idea whether his magnum opus would even be published. When it finally emerged in 1821 even in a heavily censored version, it was denounced from the pulpit and placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books. By the late 19th century, within this same bastion of French culture, the National Library, several luridly illustrated editions were kept in a special cupboard for illicit books, called L’Enfer, or the Hell. But today, it seems, Casanova has finally become respectable. In 2011, several of the manuscript’s pages—by turns hilarious, ribald, provocative, boastful, self-mocking, philosophical, tender and occasionally still shocking—were displayed to the public for the first time in Paris, with plans for the exhibition to travel to Venice this year. In another literary first, the library is posting all 3,700 pages online, while a lavish new 12-volume edition is being prepared with Casanova’s corrections included. A French government commission has anointed the memoir a “national treasure,” even though Casanova was born in Venice. “French was the language of intellectuals in the 18th century and he wanted as wide readership as possible,” said curator Corinne Le Bitouzé. “He lived much of his life in Paris, and loved the French spirit and French literature. There are ‘Italianisms’ in his style, yes, but his use of the French language was magnificent and revolutionary. It was not academic but alive.”
It’s quite an accolade for a man who has often been dismissed as a frivolous sexual adventurer, a cad and a wastrel. The flurry of attention surrounding Casanova—and the astonishing price tag for his work—provide an opportunity to reassess one of Europe’s most fascinating and misunderstood figures. Casanova himself would have felt this long overdue. “He would have been surprised to discover that he is remembered first as a great lover,” says Tom Vitelli, a leading American Casanovist, who contributes regularly to the international scholarly journal devoted to the writer, L’Intermédiaire des Casanovistes. “Sex was part of his story, but it was incidental to his real literary aims. He only presented his love life because it gave a window onto human nature.”
Today, Casanova is so surrounded by myth that many people almost believe he was a fictional character. (Perhaps it’s hard to take seriously a man who has been portrayed by Tony Curtis, Donald Sutherland, Heath Ledger and even Vincent Price, in a Bob Hope comedy, Casanova’s Big Night.) In fact, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova lived from 1725 to 1798, and was a far more intellectual figure than the gadabout playboy portrayed on film. He was a true Enlightenment polymath, whose many achievements would put the likes of Hugh Hefner to shame. He hobnobbed with Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin and probably Mozart; survived as a gambler, an astrologer and spy; translated The Iliad into his Venetian dialect; and wrote a science fiction novel, a proto-feminist pamphlet and a range of mathematical treatises. He was also one of history’s great travelers, crisscrossing Europe from Madrid to Moscow. And yet he wrote his legendary memoir, the innocuously named Story of My Life, in his penniless old age, while working as a librarian (of all things!) at the obscure Castle Dux, in the mountains of Bohemia in the modern-day Czech Republic.
No less improbable than the man’s life is the miraculous survival of the manuscript itself. Casanova bequeathed it on his deathbed to . . .