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 . . .
I don’t know whether I would take it to this level, but this detailed post has given me food for thought: I have quite a few power-sucking devices, and most are plugged into power strips: it would be easy enough to turn off the power strip when I don’t need the device to be alert. In particular, I thought The Energy Detective looks pretty awesome. Watch some of the videos at the link and you’ll see what I mean.
I blogged earlier about Peter Beinart’s new book The Crisis of Zionism, which looks at the effects Israeli politics and practices, and now the attacks on Beinart are mounting. M. J. Rosenberg at the Huffington Post takes a look:
Almost all the criticism (and controversy surrounding) Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism comes down to two major complaints.
The first is that he is a “liberal Zionist” which, by some definitions, means he is just as indifferent to Palestinian rights as a rightwing Zionist. He believes in the idea and reality of a Jewish state and is primarily motivated by his sense of urgency about preserving it. He also does not support the right to return to Israel of all the Palestinian refugees (dating back to 1947) and their millions of descendants, viewing full return as a means to ending Israel’s existence. And, worst of all to some on the left, Beinart favors the so-called “two-state solution” which, although repeatedly thwarted primarily by settler-supporting Israeli governments, Beinart sees as the only means to achieve a solution fair to both peoples.
The second source of complaint (fury, actually) emanates from the “pro-Israel” right and its intensity dwarfs the criticism of those who attack from the left. The anti-Zionists primarily view Beinart as misguided and naïve, still a prisoner of the Zionist ideology on which he was raised. The “pro-Israel” right (and that includes virtually the entire “pro-Israel” establishment) views Beinart as evil, as a traitor and, as ridiculous as this sounds, an enemy of the Jewish people. No matter, that his goal is a secure Israel living side by side next to a secure Palestine. No matter that his love for Israel suffuses his entire book or that he is an observant Jew. For the “pro-Israel” right, Beinart is the enemy.
Understanding the right’s feelings about Beinart may be more the job of a psychologist than a pundit because it is so irrational that it cannot be addressed merely by citing facts. It is a mark of how crazy the debate over Israel has become in this country that it exceeds anything that goes on in Israel, which itself has more than its fair share of right-wingers.
For instance, take a look at this video from the top-rated Israeli show Big Brother, a television reality show in which a group of young people move into an apartment and live their lives on camera. These shows are popular worldwide but the brilliant exposition of the evils of the occupation that one character made on the Israeli show last week is unimaginable here. (U.S. reality shows avoid politics like the plague. But this is Israel).
Striking this about this video (besides the fact not even a Jewish Community Center would dare show it in the U.S) is the young man making the case against the occupation. He is the kind of person Zionism was supposed to produce: a proud Israeli, afraid of nothing. These are the kind of Israelis we don’t see much of in the United States anymore in contrast to the period before Israel became obsessed with maintaining the occupation and confronting Iran. You know, the Paul Newman (Exodus) kind of Israelis which, although a stereotype, is rooted in reality. The reason we don’t see them is because an Israeli government that is always making the case for the status quo based on fear would be ill-served by proud, unafraid Israelis speaking to Americans. It prefers fear mongering.
Take Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for instance, whose mind seems to be in 1938 Europe.
In 2006, speaking of Iran, Netanyahu told an audience in Los Angeles. “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” He said that the Iranian president who “denies the Holocaust” is “preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state.”
Note: Netanyahu’s warning of the imminent danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon was delivered six years ago and it was far from the first Netanyahu warning that Iran was on the brink of achieving a nuclear bomb. It was also not the first time he said that the present day was reminiscent of 1938, although he has sometimes invoked 1942 or 1944.
The difference between Netanyahu and the young Israeli in the video (and most Israelis, I believe) is that . . .
Who—or what—killed Alexander the Great is one of the many mysteries that reverberate through history. James Room takes a look at some of the theories in History Today:
In Babylon on June 11th, 323 bc, at about 5pm, Alexander the Great died aged 32, having conquered an empire stretching from modern Albania to eastern Pakistan. The question of what, or who, killed the Macedonian king has never been answered successfully. Today new theories are heating up one of history’s longest-running cold cases.
Like the death of Stalin, to which it is sometimes compared, the death of Alexander poses a mystery that is perhaps insoluble but nonetheless irresistible. Conspiracy buffs have been speculating about it since before the king’s body was cold, but recently there has been an extraordinary number of new accusers and new suspects. Fuel was added to the fire by Oliver Stone’s Alexander, released in 2004 with new versions in 2006 and 2008: a film that, whatever its artistic flaws, presents a historically informed theory about who killed Alexander and why.
Few events have been as unexpected as the death of Alexander. The king had shown fantastic reserves of strength during his 12-year campaign through Asia, enduring severe hardships and taking on strenuous combat roles. Some had come to think of him as divine, an idea fostered, and perhaps entertained, by Alexander himself. In 325, fighting almost single-handed against South Asian warriors, Alexander had one of his lungs pierced by an arrow, yet soon afterwards he made the most arduous of his military marches, a 60-day trek along the barren coast of southern Iran.
Consequently, when the king fell gravely ill and died two years later, the shock felt by his 50,000-strong army was intense. So was the confusion about who would next lead it, for Alexander had made no plans for succession and had as yet produced no legitimate heir (though one would be born shortly after his death). The sudden demise of such a commanding figure would indeed turn out to be a catastrophic turning point, the start of a half-century of instability and strife known today as the Wars of the Successors.
Events of such magnitude inevitably prompt a search for causes. It is disturbing to think that blind chance – a drink from the wrong stream or a bite from the wrong mosquito – put the ancient world on a perilous new course. An explanation that keeps the change in human hands may in some ways be reassuring, even though it involves a darker view of Alexander’s relations with his Companions, the inner circle of friends and high-ranking officers that surrounded him in Babylon.
Ancient historians have reached no consensus on the cause of Alexander’s death, though many attribute it to disease. In 1996 Eugene Borza, a scholar specialising in ancient Macedon, took part in a medical board of inquiry at the University of Maryland, which reached a diagnosis of typhoid fever; Borza has since defended that finding in print. Malaria, smallpox and leukaemia have also been proposed, with alcoholism, infection from the lung wound and grief – Alexander’s close friend Hephaestion had died some months earlier – often seen as complicating factors. But some historians are unwilling to identify a specific illness, or even to choose between illness or murder: two Alexander experts who once made this choice (one on each side) later changed their opinions to undecided.
With historical research at an impasse, Alexander sleuths are reaching out for new ideas and new approaches. Armed with reports from toxicologists and forensic pathologists and delving themselves into criminal psychology, they are re-opening the Alexander file as an ongoing murder investigation.
The idea that Alexander was murdered first gained wider attention in 2004, thanks to . . .
An extremely good shave today. The Thäter brush is now officially a favorite, and if you believe you may want a new brush over the next while, I encourage you to pick up one of these from BullgooseShaving.net—he’s discounted them and (I believe) won’t be carrying them because they were insufficiently popular, but by golly they’re popular with me! An extremely good brush, based on my experience (with it and with other brushes).
Lavanda is a Portuguese line—Ach. Brito (Achilles Brito) makes the MR GLO equivalent, available from the PortugalOnlineShop.com—and Lavanda’s subdued but confident fragrance is quite wonderful in the morning: substantial but deferential as well. I got an extremely nice lather and took my time with it because it was so pleasant, and then the iKon OSS with a Gillette 7 O’Clock SharpEdge blade did three smooth passes. A final rinse, dry, and a good splash of Lavanda aftershave—more of that great fragrance!
Altogether a great shave. I’m getting eager to return to soaps, though.