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Archive for June 13th, 2019

Salama Rushdie on Kurt Vonnegut and “Slaughterhouse Five”

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From the New Yorker:

first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” in 1972, three years after it was published and three years before I published my own first novel. I was twenty-five years old. 1972 was the year of inching slowly toward the Paris Peace Accords, which were supposed to end the war in Vietnam, though the final, ignominious American withdrawal—the helicopters airlifting people from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon—would not take place until three years later, at which point, by way of a small footnote to history, I had become a published writer.

I mention Vietnam because, although “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book about the Second World War, Vietnam is also a presence in its pages, and people’s feelings about Vietnam have a good deal to do with the novel’s huge success. Eight years earlier, in 1961, Joseph Heller had published “Catch-22” and President John F. Kennedy began the escalation of the United States’ involvement in the conflict in Vietnam. “Catch-22,” like “Slaughterhouse-Five,” was a novel about the Second World War that caught the imagination of readers who were thinking a lot about another war. In those days, I was living in Britain, which did not send soldiers to fight in Indochina but whose government did support the American war effort, and so, when I was at university, and afterward, I, too, was involved with thinking about and protesting against that war. I did not read “Catch-22” in 1961, because I was only fourteen years old. As a matter of fact, I read both “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22” in the same year, a decade later, and the two books together had a great effect on my young mind.

It hadn’t occurred to me until I read them that antiwar novels could be funny as well as serious. “Catch-22” is crazy funny, slapstick funny. It sees war as insane and the desire to escape combat as the only sane position. Its tone of voice is deadpan farce. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is different. There is much comedy in it, as there was in everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote, but it does not see war as farcical. It sees war as a tragedy so great that perhaps only the mask of comedy allows one to look it in the eye. Vonnegut is a sad-faced comedian. If Heller was Charlie Chaplin, then Vonnegut was Buster Keaton. His predominant tone of voice is melancholy, the tone of voice of a man who has been present for a great horror and lived to tell the tale. The two books do, however, have this in common: they are both portraits of a world that has lost its mind, in which children are sent out to do men’s work and die.

As a prisoner of war, age twenty-two, which is to say three years younger than I was when I read his story, Vonnegut was in the famously beautiful city of Dresden, locked up with other Americans in Schlachthof-Fünf, where pigs had been slaughtered before the war, and was therefore an accidental witness to one of the greatest slaughters of human beings in history, the firebombing of Dresden, in February of 1945, which flattened the whole city and killed almost everyone in it.

So it goes.

I had not remembered, until I reread “Slaughterhouse-Five,” that that famous phrase “So it goes” is used only and always as a comment on death. Sometimes a phrase from a novel or a play or a film can catch the imagination so powerfully—even when misquoted—that it lifts off from the page and acquires an independent life of its own. “Come up and see me sometime” and “Play it again, Sam” are misquotations of this type. Something of this sort has also happened to the phrase “So it goes.” The trouble is that when this kind of liftoff happens to a phrase its original context is lost. I suspect that many people who have not read Vonnegut are familiar with the phrase, but they, and also, I suspect, many people who have read Vonnegut, think of it as a kind of resigned commentary on life. Life rarely turns out in the way the living hope for, and “So it goes” has become one of the ways in which we verbally shrug our shoulders and accept what life gives us. But that is not its purpose in “Slaughterhouse-Five.” “So it goes” is not a way of accepting life but, rather, of facing death. It occurs in the text almost every single time someone dies, and only when death is evoked.

It is also deeply ironic. Beneath the apparent resignation is a sadness for which there are no words. This is the manner of the entire novel, and it has led to the novel being, in many cases, misunderstood. I am not suggesting that “Slaughterhouse-Five” has been poorly treated. Its reception was largely positive, it has sold an enormous number of copies, the Modern Library ranked it eighteenth on its list of the hundred best English-language novels of the twentieth century, and it is also on a similar list issued by Time magazine. However, there are those who have accused it of the sin of “quietism,” of a resigned acceptance, even, according to Anthony Burgess, an “evasion” of the worst things in the world. One of the reasons for this is the phrase “So it goes,” and it is clear to me from these critiques that the British novelist Julian Barnes was right when he wrote in his book “A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters” that “Irony may be defined as what people miss.”

Kurt Vonnegut is a deeply ironic writer who has sometimes been read as if he were not. The misreading goes beyond “So it goes,” and has a good deal to do with the inhabitants of the planet of Tralfamadore. As it happens, I am a great fan of Tralfamadorians, who look like toilet plungers, beginning with their mechanical emissary Salo, who, in an earlier Vonnegut novel, “The Sirens of Titan,” was marooned on Titan, a moon of the planet Saturn, needing a replacement part for his spaceship. And now comes the classic Vonnegut subject of free will, expressed as a comic science-fiction device. We learn in “The Sirens of Titan” that human history has been manipulated by Tralfamadorians to persuade the human race to build large messages to Salo, and to get our primitive ancestors to develop a civilization capable of doing so. Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China were some of the messages from Tralfamadore. Stonehenge read, “Replacement part being rushed with all possible speed.” The Great Wall of China said, “Be patient. We haven’t forgotten about you.” The Kremlin meant, “You will be on your way before you know it.” And the Palace of the League of Nations, in Geneva, meant, “Pack up your things and be ready to leave on short notice.”

Tralfamadorians, we learn in “Slaughterhouse-Five,” perceive time differently. They see that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously and forever and are simply there, fixed, eternally. When the main character of the novel, Billy Pilgrim, who is kidnapped and taken to Tralfamadore, “comes unstuck in time” and begins to experience chronology the way Tralfamadorians do, he understands why his captors find comical the notion of free will.

It seems obvious, at least to this reader, that there is a mischievous ironic intelligence at work here, that there is no reason for us to assume that the rejection of free will by aliens resembling toilet plungers is a rejection also made by their creator. It is perfectly possible, perhaps even sensible, to read Billy Pilgrim’s entire Tralfamadorian experience as a fantastic, traumatic disorder brought about by his wartime experiences—as “not real.” Vonnegut leaves that question open, as a good writer should. That openness is the space in which the reader is allowed to make up his or her own mind.

To read Vonnegut is to know that he was repeatedly drawn to the investigation of free will, of what it might be and how it might or might not function, and that he came at the subject from many different angles. Many of his ruminations were presented in the form of works by his fictional alter ego, Kilgore Trout.

I love Kilgore Trout as deeply as I love the inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore. I even own a copy of the novel “Venus on the Half-Shell,” in which the writer Philip José Farmer took a Trout story written by Vonnegut and expanded it to novel length. “Venus on the Half-Shell” is about the accidental destruction of the earth by incompetent universal bureaucrats, and the attempt by the sole surviving human being to seek answers to the so-called Ultimate Question. In this way, Kilgore Trout inspired Douglas Adams’s celebrated book “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” in which, you may recall, the earth was demolished by Vogons to make room for an interstellar bypass, and the sole surviving man, Arthur Dent, went in search of answers. Finally, the supercomputer Deep Thought revealed that the answer to life, the universe, and everything was, and is, “42.” The problem remains: What is the question?

In Vonnegut’s novel “Breakfast of Champions,” we learn about another Kilgore Trout story, “Now It Can Be Told,” written in the form of a letter from the Creator of the Universe addressed to the reader of the story. The Creator explains that the whole of life itself has been a long experiment. The nature of the experiment was this: to introduce into an otherwise wholly deterministic universe one single person who is granted free will, to see what use he makes of it, in a reality in which every other living thing was, is, and always will be a programmed machine. Everyone in the whole of history has been a robot, and the single individual with free will’s mother and father and everyone he knows are also robots, and so, by the way, is Sammy Davis, Jr. The individual with free will, God explains, is you, the reader of the story, and so God would like to offer you an apology for any discomfort you have endured. The end.

It’s worth adding one further detail. Throughout the many works by Kurt Vonnegut in which Kilgore Trout appears, he is consistently described as the worst writer in the world, whose books are utter failures, and who is completely and even contemptuously ignored. We are asked to see him simultaneously as a genius and a fool. This is not accidental. His creator, Kurt Vonnegut, was at once the most intellectual of playful fantasists and the most playfully fantastic of intellectuals. He had a horror of people who took things too seriously and was simultaneously obsessed with the consideration of the most serious things, things both philosophical (like free will) and lethal (like the firebombing of Dresden). This is the paradox out of which his dark ironies grow. Nobody who futzed around so often and in so many ways with the idea of free will, or who cared so profoundly about the dead, could be described as a fatalist, or a quietist, or resigned. His books argue about ideas of freedom and mourn the dead, from their first pages to their last.

Around the same time that I first read “Slaughterhouse-Five” and “Catch-22,” I also read another novel about a similar subject. That novel was “War and Peace,” which is longer than Heller’s book and Vonnegut’s book combined and isn’t funny at all. On that first reading of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, my twenty-five-year-old self thought, in summary: Loved peace, hated war. I was absorbed by the stories of Natasha Rostov, Prince Andrei, and Pierre Bezukhov, and found the extremely long descriptions of fighting, especially of the Battle of Borodino, pretty boring, to be frank. When I reread “War and Peace” perhaps thirty years later, I discovered that I felt exactly the opposite. The description of men at war, I thought, had never been bettered, and the greatness of the novel was to be found in those descriptions, and not in the somewhat more conventional stories of the leading characters. Loved war, hated peace.

Rereading “Slaughterhouse-Five,” I also found my valuation of the text changing. That younger self was strongly drawn to fantasy and science fiction, and sought out magazines called things like Galaxy and Astounding and Amazing, and was drawn to the work not only of the crossover giants, like Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur C. Clarke, but also to Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf, whose “Frankenstein” and “Orlando,” respectively, are honorary members of the canon, as well as to the hardcore genre masters, such as James Blish, Frederik Pohl, C. M. Kornbluth, Clifford D. Simak, Katherine MacLean, Zenna Henderson, and L. Sprague de Camp. That young man, faced with Vonnegut’s masterpiece, responded most strongly to the sci-fi aspects of the book. To read it again has been to discover the humane beauty of the non-sci-fi parts, which make up most of the book.

The truth is that “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a great realist novel. Its first sentence is  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2019 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Art, Books, Science fiction

“L.A. was poisoned for me”: Inside the 20-year cover-up of The Notorious B.I.G.’s murder

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Randall Sullivan in Crime Reads:

Sixteen years ago, Randall Sullivan’s groundbreaking book, LAbyrinth, explored the role the Los Angeles Police Department may have played in the 1997 murder of Christopher Wallace, the legendary rapper known as Notorious B.I.G. At the time of his death, Wallace was embroiled in an ongoing beef with West Coast rap figures at Death Row Records. Sullivan’s investigations, published in the pages of Rolling Stone and in his 2002 book, indicated that officers inside the LAPD were moonlighting as security for Death Row Records and may have been involved in arranging a hit on Notorious B.I.G. 

In the years since LAbyrinth was released, the story has been made into a film, City of Lies, directed by Brad Furman, while Sullivan continued his investigation into the murder and the cover-up. His new book, Dead Wrong (Atlantic Monthly Press, June, 2019), details evidence of a wide-ranging effort involving some of the most powerful men in law enforcement to cover-up the murder of Biggie Smalls and to quash a civil lawsuit the Wallace family estate has filed against the City of Los Angeles, a suit that could potentially cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars. 

In the following exclusive excerpt, Sullivan chronicles the work of Phil Carson, the FBI special agent assigned to investigate links between LAPD police corruption cases and Wallace’s murder. Carson’s investigation was undermined by members of the LAPD, federal prosecutors in Los Angeles, and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times named Chuck Phillips. While Carson’s investigation was ongoing, a Times story written by Philips outed a key FBI informant connected to the case. After that article was published, family members of the informant were shot in drive-by incidents. Carson believed that details of the case were being leaked to Philips by the deputy chief of the LAPD, Michael Berkow. 

In this passage from Dead Wrong, Sullivan details what happened when Carson was named as a witness for the Notorious B.I.G.’s family in their wrongful death suit against Los Angeles.

__________________________________

Special agent Phil Carson’s life and career both began to blow up on the day the attorneys for the plaintiffs’ side in Wallace v. Los Angeles —a wrongful-death suit filed in by the family of the Notorious B.I.G. against the city of Los Angeles—listed him as a witness. Carson was the FBI agent assigned to investigate potential links between LAPD corruption cases and the rapper’s 1997 murder in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. According to Carson and two other agents in the FBI’s Los Angeles office, Michael Berkow—then the LAPD deputy chief—had twice asked the head of the criminal division at that FBI office, Lou Caprino, to shut down Carson’s investigation of the Biggie murder. Caprino refused both times. When Carson’s name appeared on the witness list, the city attorney’s office got involved. An assistant city attorney named Louis Li arranged a meeting with Carson and his bosses at the FBI office. “Li told us, point-blank, ‘We cannot let Agent Carson testify, because if he does, we stand a better than fifty percent chance of losing upwards of six hundred million dollars in this lawsuit,’” remembered Carson, whose recollection was confirmed by another FBI agent at the meeting. “‘It would ruin the LAPD, and the relationship between the LAPD and the federal government, including the FBI.’”

When Carson’s FBI bosses equivocated, a larger meeting was organized, one attended by not only the highest-ranking FBI officials in L.A. but also the senior command staff of the LAPD and the attorneys defending the city in the Wallace v. Los Angeles lawsuit. The LAPD representatives and city attorneys spoke at length about the relationship between the police department and the FBI, the various federal programs and task forces the two agencies were involved with together, and the enormous amount of money that had been committed to these projects, remembered Carson and a second special agent who was present. The FBI and the LAPD were “interdependent,” one of those on the city’s side of the table argued, and it would be insane to jeopardize all that “just to solve the murder of a four-hundred-pound black crack dealer turned rapper.”

“Those were the exact words used,” Carson recalled. A second FBI agent who was at the meeting confirmed this.

Carson’s bosses acceded to the city’s demand: he would not be a witness in the Wallace v. Los Angeles civil trial, the agent was informed. Officially, it was Caprino who had made that decision, but Carson believed “it went higher up than Lou, to people back in D.C.”

***

By then, Carson’s greatest concerns were not about what the LAPD and the city attorney’s office were doing to his case, but about the threats against his career being made by Chuck Philips, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Carson recalled, “Philips started phoning me constantly and asking me questions about the case that I couldn’t answer. When I explained that to him, he started calling Cathy Viray, who was the head of the press information unit at our FBI office, and telling her, ‘I’m going to ruin Carson.’” Viray, who confirmed Philips’s threats, and Steve Kramer, who was then the assistant chief counsel at the FBI’s L.A. headquarters, both explained to Philips that Carson couldn’t say more than he already had said.

Philips, though, continued to threaten that he would destroy Phil Carson’s career if he didn’t get answers, remembered Viray.

Finally—“and this was absolutely unprecedented,” Carson said—Caprino arranged for a conference call during which every one of the supervisors at the FBI office, along with its legal and press teams, would answer what questions they could for Philips.

The agents who participated in that conference call were filled with dismay and fury when, just days later, an article by Philips ran on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Metro section. “FBI Ends Probe into Killing of Rap Star,” read the headline. In the article, Philips revealed that the FBI had shut down its investigation of the Christopher Wallace homicide, the first time this news had been made public.

The FBI had decided to drop the probe, Philips wrote, “after learning that Agent Philip J. Carson had discussions with lawyers for Wallace’s mother, Voletta Wallace, and had been subpoenaed to testify in her wrongful-death lawsuit against the city.” FBI officials had already informed Sanders and Frank that Carson would not be permitted to testify in open court. According to Philips, Carson’s bosses had also instructed him to have no further contact with the Wallace family’s attorneys.

Those lawyers, Sanders and Frank, were enraged by the article. “We had heard, and had to assume, that enormous pressure was being brought to bear on the FBI for something like this to happen,” Sanders said. “Phil Carson called me at one point and said, ‘This is political at the highest levels you can imagine.’ He said he still believed we were right about who was responsible for Biggie’s murder, but was being hassled in a major way by people who wanted him to stop going in that direction.”

For the record, the head of the FBI in Los Angeles, Richard T. Garcia, stated that the results of Special Agent Carson’s eighteen-month-long investigation had been submitted to the U.S. attorney’s office, which “determined that the evidence was insufficient for [criminal] prosecution.”

That much was true: Carson had submitted the results of his investigation to the U.S. attorney’s office. By then, he knew the case was being followed at the highest levels of the bureau, Carson said. That had become obvious when the name of FBI director Robert Mueller began to appear in the email chain of memos concerning the Christopher Wallace murder investigation. “The politics of the case had become mind-boggling,” said Carson, who was “stunned” when the U.S. attorney’s office answered his submission of the case with a letter stating it saw insufficient evidence to prosecute.

“I knew I had the case,” Carson explained. “We definitely had enough to prosecute.” The standard procedure—universally observed—was that when the U.S. attorney’s office turned down an FBI case, it provided a “letter of declination” laying out the reasons for the decision. In this instance, however, the assistant U.S. attorney who had been assigned to the case, David Vaughn, a former Los Angeles County assistant district attorney, refused to provide such a letter.

“I had a meeting with the assistant director and all my bosses to go over the investigation page by page,” recalled Carson, whose recollection was confirmed by another agent in attendance. “After the assistant director heard and read the evidence, he looked at me and said, ‘Why isn’t this case being indicted?’ I said, ‘Good question. Go ask the U.S. attorney’s office. They won’t explain why.’ He said, ‘Well, don’t you have a letter of declination?’ I say they won’t give me one, and he looks me in the eye for a long time, then says, ‘You get that letter of declination.’ Because at this point he’s not going to let this come back on the FBI. There is obviously a case here that should have resulted in an indictment, and if there isn’t one the U.S. attorney has to take responsibility for it.”

He asked—and eventually implored—Vaughn multiple times to provide the letter of declination, Carson recalled, and was refused on each occasion. “That just doesn’t happen,” Carson said. “I talked to my fellow agents and to my bosses, and they all said they’d never seen a decision not to prosecute an FBI case where the U.S. attorney’s office had refused to provide a letter of declination. It was unique to this situation.” [1]

***

After the March 11, 2005, publication of Philips’s article “FBI Ends Probe,”  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2019 at 10:53 am

There’s a Shake-Up Happening in Wall Street’s Dark Pools

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Pam Martens and Russ Martens write in Wall Street on Parade:

Dark Pools are opaque stock trading platforms operated by the largest Wall Street banks and other firms. They are, effectively, stock exchanges but have been given exemptions by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) from having to register as a stock exchange or to submit to more rigorous oversight by the SEC.

The rationale for the existence of Dark Pools owned by the mega banks has escaped the public since these are the same banks that are serially fined for abusing the public’s trust and rigging other markets like foreign exchange, Libor, and the Nasdaq stock market in the 1990s. Their conduct was so bad in the Nasdaq matter that they were forced to submit to having their trading phone calls taped and reviewed by regulators.

Wall Street On Parade has written extensively about the highly suspect transactions that are taking place in the Dark Pools of the mega banks, the most outrageous of which is the trading of their own bank stock. (See related articles below.) The SEC has also repeatedly fined and sanctioned the Dark Pools of the biggest Wall Street banks which has had little effect on stopping the abuses.

On July 18 of last year, the SEC, in a unanimous vote, decided to require more public disclosure from each Dark Pool about how it conducts its business. The more detailed public disclosures were to be provided on a new form called an ATS-N.

What happened next was that after years of being listed as operating a Dark Pool (also known as an ATS or Alternative Trading System) on the SEC’s monthly ATS List, every major Wall Street bank’s Dark Pool disappeared from the list as of this past February.

One of those Dark Pools has now decided to cease operations. A spokesman for Citigroup has confirmed that it has ceased operating its Dark Pool known as CitiCross. A filing at FINRA also shows that Citigroup has terminated its registration for Citi Order Routing and Execution LLC, which was the subject of a major fine and enforcement action by the SEC last year for illegally operating as a stock exchange without permission or oversight from the SEC. Citi Order Routing and Execution LLC had operated the Dark Pool called CitiMatch.

The official statement from Citigroup on the matter is this:

“We have decided to shut down the CitiCross ATS as part of a strategic review of our Equities Business. We continue to invest in talent and technology to drive wallet share growth in Global Equities.”

Wall Street On Parade previously reported in 2014 on a dizzying array of Dark Pools and trading platforms at Citigroup. (See Citigroup’s Dark Pools: Here’s Why the Public Doesn’t Trust Wall Street.) At that time, Citi Order Routing and Execution LLC went by the name of Automated Trading Desk or ATD, which stated on its web site at the time that it was trading “200 million shares a day,” the equivalent of a billion shares a week. Unspecified amounts of ATD’s assets were sold to Citadel Securities in 2016.

Citigroup is still operating a Dark Pool known as CitiBLOC. The more rigorous disclosures under the new ATS-N form it filed earlier this year was not up to snuff, according to a notice posted on the SEC’s website. It reads in part: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2019 at 10:30 am

Tallow + Steel Dark for a very bright day

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We’re nearing the summer solstice, which here means 16 hours 7 minutes from sunrise to sunset (5:12am sunrise, 9:19pm sunset). So it was already quite light and sunny when I arose, and Tallow + Steel’s Dark seemed a good counterbalance. The Kent Infinity made an extremely nice lather very easily, and the Maggard V3A did it usual wonderfully efficient job. A splash of Dark aftershave, and the day begins.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 June 2019 at 8:00 am

Posted in Shaving

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