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Archive for November, 2008

Biography: V.S. Naipaul and McGeorge Bundy

November 30, 2008 Leave a comment

I have stacks of books to read all around the house, but now I have to add two more to the stacks. Maybe saying a few words about each will force me to read them.

First is The World is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul, written by Patrick French. It was reviewed on the cover of the NYT Book Review last Sunday by the New Yorker’s George Packer, who has an accompanying piece on Naipaul at his blog. At the blog, Packer writes, “It’s a wonderful book, engrossing to read, and it raises the question of the relation between the work and the man in its starkest form: how can a writer who is monstrously inhumane to the people closest to him endow his characters with such humanity?”

At some point around 30 years ago, Naipaul became my favorite author. I must have about 15 of his books. Maybe I started with A Bend in the River and then worked backwards through Penguin paperback editions of most of the books he wrote before that. A House for Mr Biswas was easily my favorite, but I was also quite struck by his non-fiction work India: A Wounded Civilization. And then I stopped reading him. Perhaps the biography will re-start me, but it’s clear from Packer’s articles, as well as Ian Buruma’s review in the New York Review of Books, that I’ll be in for some painful reading.

The second book is Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam, by Gordon M. Goldstein, and it is reviewed by veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke in today’s NYT Book Review. Read more…

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Categories: Books, History, Politics

Thomas Friedman and Conventional Wisdom

November 30, 2008 Leave a comment

With Joel home this weekend, we have found ourselves talking about Thomas Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer Prize winning NYT op-ed columnist, on several occasions. I like Friedman. I always read him, and have done so for decades. But something about him bugs me, what I’m tempted sometimes to call a tendency towards being a know-it-all. On Wednesday I tried to be more precise in explaining this to Joel, as well as in trying to explain what bugged me about that other great mainstream sage, the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell. (Of course, if I could write half as well as either of them, I would have much to be thankful for.)

Yesterday, Joel pointed me to the opening of Bill McKibben’s review in a recent New York Review of Books of Friedman’s latest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America. McKibben, of course, is the brilliant writer and environmentalist whose 1989 New Yorker article and book The End of Nature gave convincing evidence and warning of climate change, its causes, and likely impact. And in the first paragraph of his review McKibben captures what I was trying to say about Friedman:

Thomas Friedman is the prime leading indicator of the conventional wisdom, always positioned just far enough ahead of the curve to give readers the sense that they’re in-the-know, but never far enough to cause deep mental unease. He performs a useful service as a kind of political GPS unit, telling us where the country is, and could reasonably be expected to go.

Read more…

Categories: Politics, Today's News

Cooks vs. Chefs and the Homesick Restaurant

November 30, 2008 Leave a comment

Marcella Hazan op-ed piece on cooks and chefs in yesterday’s NYT pairs beautifully with Nadeem Aslam’s backpage piece on a London Pakistani restaurant in today’s NYT Magazine. I enjoyed them all the more now that Gail is both a cook and a chef. To get you started, below is the opening to the Hazan article.

“My husband is such a great chef,” my hairdresser was saying.

“Oh,” I said. “What restaurant does he work in?”

“No, no, no, he doesn’t work in a restaurant. He is an electrician. But he does amazing things on the grill when we cook out during the weekend.”

This happens a lot. “Chef” has pretty much replaced “gourmet cook” to describe anyone who cooks well.

And here’s an excerpt from Aslam’s article.

We ordered. As always, my brother, my sister and I searched the food that evening for our mother, for our aunts and for our grandmothers. Each Pakistani woman spices her curries in her own way; each pan has a different aroma, the way each human body smells slightly different. The thickness, texture and the width of each woman’s chapati is also unique to her, depending on the size of her hands, the shape of her fingers and the strength with which she kneads the dough. And that evening all three of us were overcome very soon after we began the meal: the food — the flavor of the mutton, of the samosas — was the best we had tasted since our visits to our eldest aunt’s home in Lahore. That was 20 years ago, and the aunt had been dead for 10 years.

This article has a delightful surprise. Don’t miss it.

Categories: Food, Restaurants

iPhones at Last

November 29, 2008 Leave a comment
iPhone

iPhone

We got them. Yesterday. Why not sooner? Read more…

Categories: Family, Technology

Don’t Know Much About History

November 27, 2008 Leave a comment

With Joel’s return from Boston two nights ago, I had the pleasure of his company yesterday as we drove around the city doing assorted errands. Last night, as I recalled some of our day’s conversation, I thought about how I used to quiz him, 10 or 12 years ago, when we walked (or I walked and he rollerbladed) around the neighborhood. Here were some of my standard questions: Read more…

My New Flip Mino HD

November 27, 2008 Leave a comment

Last March, David Pogue reviewed the Flip Ultra, a tiny digital camcorder, in his weekly New York Times technology column. I had somehow missed the news of the original Flip’s arrival a year earlier, so I read with interest how it had already taken 13% of the camcorder market, despite its limited features. What it had going for it was simplicity and size. As Pogue wrote, “the Flip has been reduced to the purest essence of video capture. You turn it on, and it’s ready to start filming in two seconds. You press the red button once to record (press hard — it’s a little balky) and once to stop. You press Play to review the video, and the Trash button to delete a clip. There it is: the entire user’s manual.” And to transfer the video to your computer, you just flip out the USB jack and plug the whole thing in.

We bought two camcorders over the years, used each for a few months, and then lost interest. Bringing them on trips was a pain. Bringing them anywhere was a pain. The first one pre-dated computer editing software. We bought the second when Apple’s first iMovie program was released and I tried doing some editing on our Mac, but lost interest. I dare not calculate the cost per minute of the films we made on the second one. But this Flip didn’t sound so great either.

Then last Thursday Pogue reviewed the Flip Mino HD and he really got my attention. Simple, modestly priced ($230 list), small, lightweight, easy to use, easy to upload the video, and high quality video at that. The biggest drawback was lack of an image stabilizer. (Which reminds me, another reason I stopped filming with our second camcorder is that watching the results made me seasick.) But it was so convenient, so light, that I could imagine carrying it everywhere and making good use of it. So Sunday I ordered from Amazon (10% off) and yesterday I got it.

Flip Mino HD

Flip Mino HD

I have nothing to show yet, but I expect to be adding video to my blog posts soon. I set up a youtube account after dinner last night and posted the first video I made, just to make sure everything was working, which it was. (The video has since been removed. It was stupid.) Then we went to the airport to pick up Joel, who got in late last night from Boston. I filmed him walking towards the security exit, through the exit, towards us, stopping two feet away, then ordering me to shut it off.

Stay tuned. High def video will be coming your way soon at this station.

Categories: Film, Technology

The (Finance) Madness

November 26, 2008 1 comment
New York Stock Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

The Sunday before we went to Chicago, a friend asked me if I was angry at the people who created the financial crisis for which we are all paying. I said no. But a few days later, in Chicago, I read Michael Lewis’s article in Portfolio, The End. The subtitle describes the point of the article well: “The era that defined Wall Street is finally, officially over. Michael Lewis, who chronicled its excess in Liar’s Poker, returns to his old haunt to figure out what went wrong.” Thomas Friedman refers to the article in his column in today’s NYT, so by now everyone has probably read it, but if you haven’t, it’s well worth a look. After I read it, I was in fact angry.

Here are two excerpts, strung together, that give some idea of the content. The excerpts are out of context, but still revealing. They revolve around Steve Eisman, one of the few who recognized the bubble early on.

The big Wall Street firms had just made it possible to short even the tiniest and most obscure subprime-mortgage-backed bond by creating, in effect, a market of side bets. Instead of shorting the actual BBB bond, you could now enter into an agreement for a credit-default swap with Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs. It cost money to make this side bet, but nothing like what it cost to short the stocks, and the upside was far greater.

The arrangement bore the same relation to actual finance as fantasy football bears to the N.F.L. Eisman was perplexed in particular about why Wall Street firms would be coming to him and asking him to sell short. …

That’s when Eisman finally got it. Here he’d been making these side bets with Goldman Sachs and Deutsche Bank on the fate of the BBB tranche without fully understanding why those firms were so eager to make the bets. Now he saw. There weren’t enough Americans with shitty credit taking out loans to satisfy investors’ appetite for the end product. The firms used Eisman’s bet to synthesize more of them. Here, then, was the difference between fantasy finance and fantasy football: When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats. But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. “They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,” Eisman says. “They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans. But that’s when I realized they needed us to keep the machine running. I was like, This is allowed?”

Categories: Business, Today's News