I’ve been writing and selling short stories for just over forty years, if you include a 16-year gap in the middle when I didn’t. The stories are professional and sometimes entertaining, I hope. But none of them is memorable. Not one.
Very few stories are. Memorable means something more than being remembered. I remember many stories that I liked, admiring the writers’ craftsmanship or satisfactory narrative outcomes, but I wouldn’t feel deprived if I had never read them. There are clever ones, like Roald Dahl’s “Man from the South” or Stanley Ellin’s “Specialty of the House,” scores of them, really, including many from mainstream literature. Nobody forgets reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and probably nobody should forget reading John Updike’s “Twin Beds in Rome.”
But they leave no resonance that we want to hang onto. It may be as simple as this: they convey nothing deeply emotional.
One of my favorite short stories was by Paul Linebarger (1913-1966), godson of Sun Yat-sen, East Asian scholar, expert in psychological warfare, a Hopkins man. He wrote science fiction as Cordwainer Smith, and among those stories is “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” published in 1961. After thousands of years of humanity’s perfection, the old cultures and civilizations have been rediscovered, and uncertainty is restored to human experience. “We were drunk with happiness in those early years. . . . We watched . . . when cholera was released in Tasmania, and we saw the Tasmanians dancing in the streets, now that they did not have to be protected anymore. Everywhere, things became exciting. Everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world.” Paul and Virginia emerge from clinics as French, meet C’mell, a homunculi raised to near humanity from feline ancestry. They visit the first French café to open in thousands of years. And they’re led to an ancient, half-collapsed boulevard in the sky where a machine may tell them if they love each other by choice or by the command of a whispered program. The machine tells them that Virginia will love Paul forever, and that Paul will love Virginia for twenty-one minutes. Soon she falls from the boulevard to her death. “It must have been a very powerful left-over machine—perhaps something used in ancient wars. I had no intention of finding out. . . . I do not propose to go back to Alpha Ralpha Boulevard again. But hear, oh heart of mine!—how can you ever visit the café again?” The doctor who is tending Paul’s injuries leaves the hospital room, and C’mell enters. I won’t try to interpret the story. I read it more than fifty years ago. It hangs around in my mind.
In the early '60s, Edgar Pangborn (1909-1976) wrote “The Golden Horn,” about a young picaro in a post-apocalyptic world who meets a deformed mutant and steals the man’s ancient, beautiful golden horn. When the rogue tries to return the horn, the mutant is dead.
In “Light of Other Days” by Bob Shaw (1931-1996), a childless couple venturing into the countryside stop at a farm selling “slow glass,” which captures light and releases it only gradually—over ten years in the case of the fine glass the local man is selling. The man looks across the yard “with greedy reverence” at the window of his home, where his wife and child are sometimes visible. When the visitor enters the house, he finds it empty. The images of the man’s dead wife and child are working their way slowly through the window glass.
“Helen O’Loy” was only about the second story published by a young man writing in 1938 as Lester Del Rey (1915-1993). A couple of scientists upgrade a household robot, giving her intelligence and a human appearance. The intelligence becomes a problem, as she falls in love with one of the men, who initially resists the affection of a machine and then succumbs and spends his life with her. As he grows old, Helen visits the narrator now and then for cosmetic aging, and when her husband dies she asks the narrator to switch her off. He explains to us his failure to marry with the observation that there was only one Helen O’Loy.
All these stories are famous. They’re too well executed to be dismissed as merely sentimental, but the emotional resonance is strong. None of the authors delivered well-crafted work of this sort again. I could have mentioned quite a few other examples: Theodore Sturgeon’s “A Touch of Strange” has similar characteristics. It’s interesting that they’re all science fiction. I can’t think of a piece of mystery or mainstream fiction that achieves a comparable effect. That’s true of novels as well. What rivals Arthur C. Clarke’s closing pages of Childhood’s End for their sense of loss? In his long career, Clarke never did it again. These stories convey a sense of universal human tragedy, which is hard to do when the pressing question is who killed Cock Robin. This makes me wonder why I haven’t read science fiction since my twenties.
November 8 2017
The Red Right Hand
It’s known at the outset of this chilling novel that St. Erme, the prospective bridegroom, has been murdered by the awful little red-eyed fiend Corkscrew, who has amputated the dead man’s right hand. But as the narrator sits in another murdered man’s study, trying to piece together events as the night wanes, coincidences pile up. How is it that our narrator, a young surgeon, lived directly across the street in Greenwich Village from the woman St. Erme planned to marry? How is it that he should be on the remote, narrow road in rural Connecticut just as she comes running from the murder scene? And how is it that the description of the killer includes a hat with a brim chopped into a saw-tooth pattern, the very hat that the narrator finds along the roadside bearing the shadow of his own initials?
The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers was published in 1945, and according to the author’s son Tom was the only success among his handful of books. Though Rogers was a tremendously prolific writer of short stories, for a variety of pulp magazines in the 1920s to the ’40s, he is remembered, if he is remembered at all, for this one book, the events of which span less than a day. It is written like a ghost story, with slow, painful attention to every detail, because the narrator must figure out what has happened—in the silence of the night, with the young woman asleep on a horsehair couch beside him—because he suspects, as a posse hunts the Connecticut woods for Corkscrew, their lights flickering through trees and dogs baying, that the killer remains very close at hand.
How is it that the narrator didn’t see the murder car, hurtling past where he stood in the dusk? What did the famed criminologist MacComerou suspect that led to his death?
And where is St. Erme’s bloody right hand?
I hadn’t read this book is more than forty years. It’s a delight in the manner of stories of M.R. James and so many others: an author telling us to sit patiently while he wraps us in a chilly puzzle built on character and place.
Rogers’s son Tom has done a splendid attempt at a bibliography—attempt because his father was so prolific—attached to elegiac family remembrances. His writer father and artist mother both died in nursing homes. “Love. Passion, Brilliance. Fire. And that is how we all wind up,” Tom Rogers writes. But along the way . . .
October 7 2017
Investor at Work
Mary Chris Gay (née Amadec) is visible in the far upper left corner of the photo, behind the flash, as she catches me napping. When I started a pint-sized partnership in 1992, it seemed a good idea to have an office instead of just an address in a briefcase, so I sublet space in what was then the Legg Mason building. Mary Chris worked with Bill Miller at the Legg funds, handling sums that would have given me apoplexy. I ran Remnant Partners L.P. until the end of 2006, working out of several offices after the Legg lease ran out. In the 1990s, there were decent opportunities in post-bankruptcy securities, as companies emerging from reorganization traded at as little as three times cash flow: a good time for a totally unqualified person to set himself up in business. The cheap-money regimen that began in 1998 has changed all that. Not only are there billions around to chase bad ideas, there are billions to chase no ideas at all, via ETFs. Bill Miller’s main fund, the Value Trust, made him famous as the only money manager to beat the S&P 500 fifteen years straight. That run ended with the millennial bear market. Bill left Legg Mason last year. Mary Chris, who departed in 2013, serves on the board of MGM Resorts International. It’s hard for me to believe that twenty-five years have passed since that flash went off—or that, unless actuarial tables mean nothing at all, I have much less than another twenty-five to try to get it right.
September 28 2017
Max Gersh's Fault
When I write a particularly vile novel, it sometimes goes out under the name Max Gersh. Publishers Weekly said some nice things about the new one—“impressively creepy jump scares . . . bravura set pieces . . . well-crafted moments of suspense”—but they really didn't like the theme. I think it's a fine religious idea, suited to the cover. As a character who has become an angel says near the end, “Deo adjuvante non timendum. God helping, there is nothing to fear. That’s not true. God helping, there is everything to fear. . . . It created us, and it eats us.” Swell fare for after Sunday school. Available at Amazon.
September 24 2017
Why Would They Let It Go?
In thirty years I won’t be around to care, but I can still wonder—will Paris be French?
It’s not a frivolous question, any more than it is frivolous to wonder if London today is a British city. The ethnic English have been a minority there since at least 2012, and one can find no reason to imagine that the trend of Londonistan will reverse. What is to reverse it?
In his disturbing book from this summer, The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray suggests moral weariness explains Europe’s quiet surrender to immigration that is changing its face and, far more important, its culture and character. Europe’s anchor of Christianity was slipped in the nineteenth century, its new ideologies brought mass murder and enslavement, and its philosophers have deconstructed the continent’s raison d’etre. The Europe of Locke has forgotten itself, and it resists replacement weakly.
Yet there seems to be a complacent belief that Europe will survive all this, too. France survived the Nazis, didn’t it? What are a few million unassimilated people from the Middle East and North Africa?
It’s no small matter that it took a world war with millions of deaths to sweep the Nazis from Paris. If you leave out armies and mass bloodshed, what will halt or reverse the tide in today’s Europe? Pew Research puts the percentage of foreign-born in France in 2016 at 12.3%, only slightly above the average among European countries. But the immigrant fertility rate is about 2.1, almost a third higher than the European-born population’s. (There may be some question of definition here: is a third-generation unassimilated Muslim in the banlieue “European-born” in any meaningful sense?) In any case, the demographic trend is projected to lift the foreign-born population by several percentage points by 2050.
If the trend persists around Paris, where the metropolitan area population is perhaps 15% Muslim, the question of how long Paris will remain a French city is not rhetorical. Not every African who turned the Avenue de Flandres into an open-air dormitory was Muslim, so the percentage of unassimilating migrants is certainly larger than 15%. (Since the topic is Paris, I note only in passing that Pew Research shows the following percentages of foreign-born populations for 2016: Sweden 18.3%, Austria 18.5%—is it a wonder that Austria sent troops to the Brenner Pass?—and Germany 15.6%. Numbers from six years ago, citing multiple sources, showed Muslim-only populations in Malmo at 20%, the Hague 14.3%, Antwerp 16.9%, Manchester 15.8%, and so on. And this was before the 2015-2016 immigrant wave.)
Douglas Murray, who says the foreign-born population in Malmo now exceeds 50%, notes the utter failure of a generation of tough-talking European politicians to turn back immigration. Even admitting that many immigrants do not want to assimilate (assimilation is a “crime against humanity,” according to Turkey’s President Erdogan), and facing up reluctantly, after decades of lies, to the scandals of FGM, grooming, rape, and terror, the political class remains the enablers of immigration that is transforming their societies. If assimilation has proved a failure across the continent, as it has, what is left? You can wonder as well about voters, who rejected Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France in favor of extending the status quo. It’s an awful problem, until someone invites you to face up to it.
It’s been more than twenty years since I was in Paris. For a while, my wife and I were regulars. It was one of a handful of places I’ve been where I wouldn’t have just as soon, at any moment, been somewhere else. Whether it was sitting on a bench above the Seine reading the IHT, or wandering dark but safe streets in the Marais peeking through fogged café windows, it was the most romantic place I’d been.
You walk one direction and there’s a violin-maker’s shop. Another and you pass Le Dôme. Here is Marie-Henri Beyle’s neighborhood. Here is where Jacques de Molay was burned alive. Here is where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Miller, Root, Paul, Liebling, Baldwin, Wright, Himes, Glyn, Joyce, Beckett, Nabokov, Durrell, Koestler and innumerable others great and small paused for important years of their lives. The native French were part of the scenery. They maintained the clean, well-lighted places that offered duck and plonk, so they were indispensable. Half-assimilated Russians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles and Jews added zest. There is no reason to believe the world must maintain any European city as an adult amusement park for my pleasure. But it’s a mistake to think that once anything is gone it will come back.
August 29 2017
Do the Dots Ever Connect?
I only met Paul Volcker once, sitting next to him at dinner after a conference at which he had spoken. His topic was emerging currency trends—this was sometime in the first decade of the 2000s—and I don’t recall whether anything that he suggested might develop came to pass; certainly an East Asian currency bloc didn’t. At the dinner's start, I mentioned to Volcker that while listening to him belittle the dollar I kept expecting to hear a call for a return to a gold standard. That was my attempt at being either amusing or snarky. He replied politely, “When I was at the Fed, we hated gold.”
I already knew this. What I didn’t ask, because he was an honored guest, was, “What do you idiots think you’re doing rigging the price of money?” No matter, he could have responded that he hadn’t run the Federal Reserve for almost twenty years.
As the title of this note suggests, it isn’t about monetary policy, or about Paul Volcker, or about the quaint idea that there is a “right” price for money that may be arrived at by a cartel of central bankers. It’s about nutty people, and rational people, and the art of connecting dots. The question is whether the dots ever connect. But first, a digression on madness. The best known dot-connectors are cultists. Some of the pictures they discover are invisible to the normal eye.
You might not believe, for example, that almost thirty years ago, I was part of a global financial conspiracy that included Paul Volcker. Or that my wife Mira is the granddaughter of mob financier Meyer Lansky. Or that she tried to murder an East European immigrant (and war criminal) named John Demjanjuk. Or that her then-employer, the Anti-Defamation League, colluded with the CIA and the Justice Department to send an innocent cult leader to prison for mail fraud. Or that Henry Kissinger was a KGB agent. Or the Queen of England a drug trafficker. You might not believe this stuff because you most likely live in a world shaped by normal experience and you know that highly improbable things are seldom true. The more improbable things that get strung together, the less likely it is that the emergent narrative reflects reality. (An unknown person named Linda may be a librarian. But it’s statistically less and less likely as you add complexity that this random person is a librarian, and a feminist, and an animal rights activist, and a Republican, vegan, blues singer and poker player. The improbability goes up exponentially, not arithmetically. And that’s a chain in which none of the descriptions, taken by itself, is the least unlikely.)
A fair number of people believe things that are improbable at each step, and cumulatively are bonkers. They hold secret knowledge: esoteric stuff that provides an insight into how the world works that isn’t available to the rest of us. You can find it everywhere. Gold bugs can weave theories about global deception that make the Linda-chain look probable. Scientologists, Rosicrucians, Moonies all have their arcana. Alex Jones and Paul Craig Roberts will set your head spinning with exotic explanations of recent history. It’s the Dan Brown-novel version of reality. There are machinations behind the scenes, and we who know, really know what they are.
The search for coherence underlying this idiocy is reasonable. We want to understand the world, and it’s complicated. Questions of what we know and how we know it are difficult. Seeking answers, some intelligent people are drawn into the looniest belief systems.
In the eighties and nineties, the Lyndon LaRouche cult was ticked at my wife and her employer, the ADL, for a variety of reasons. Partly it was that her boss had described LaRouche on an NBC program as a “small-time Hitler,” and LaRouche not only lost his libel suit but also lost NBC’s counter-suit. Partly it was that Lyndon was in federal prison for mail fraud. (Some of his spear-carriers, tried in Virginia for bilking people through false loans, got up to 77 years.) At various times the cult took ads in The New York Times denouncing Mira, leafleted our neighborhood, Northern Virginia, D.C., and Maryland suburbs with “wanted” posters of her (in defense, it happens, of a Sobibór camp guard), and wrote bits of entertaining lunacy. In an article in Executive IntelligenceReview, LaRouche acolyte Herbert Quinde disclosed, “By marriage and political affiliation [Mira] Boland is linked to the Wall Street financial arm of the Anglo-American ‘secret government’ apparat, which played a central role in the Iran-Contra scandal.” Quinde collected stray facts, then sat down and knitted his data points all together: me (a financial writer at the time), Paul Volcker, Walter Schloss, John Train, even Warren Buffett got roped in. There’s a reason mad people are called “dotty.” It’s all the time they spend working with a ruler, a protractor, a fine-point pen, and a field of dots. After a while, they can’t help but see patterns.
If you Google my wife’s name, to this day you’ll get hits from various sites linked one way or another to the LaRouche cult. She was far from their only target. LaRouchies confronted KGB mole Kissinger on his way to heart surgery. They ran around Manhattan distributing mock editions of The New Yorker and The New York Times Book Review dedicated to outing lawyer Roy Cohn as a homosexual. You couldn’t fault them as lacking energy.
As an aside: The people I’ve known emerging from cults are horrified at the time they’ve spent there. Time is a fast-wasting asset, and they’ve blown some of it trying to become Rosicrucians. It makes me wonder if Herb Quinde, who has gone on to other things, remains dotty or just went through a phase.
I don’t mean to focus on the LaRouchies; it’s just that we had the most direct experience with that cult. Others are certainly worse. The LaRouchies never gathered in Guyana for a mass murder/mass suicide as did the People’s Temple believers. For decades Sung Myung Moon collected thousands of obedient followers in mass ceremonies of arranged marriages. Some descriptions of Scientology’s vengeance campaigns make the LaRouche nits seem benign, which they weren’t and perhaps aren’t.
It’s the belief structure that’s interesting: the connect-o reasoning that creates patterns that can explain a great deal, if only you accept the lines between the dots. People seem to want to believe in something, or just about anything. I know people who believe in the transmigration of souls (certainly a secret from the rest of us) and claim to have found corroboration. Transubstantiation is a fairly widespread doctrine, though no less dependent on acceptance of an improbable narrative. People believe in the lost sciences of Atlantis and Lemuria. Science fictionists in the 1930s had hollow-earth adherents, some of whom may have meant it. I met a woman once who had lost her husband and child and had become a Mormon. Tablets under a hill in Palmyra? Why not. It was the start of a pattern that gave her damaged life coherence.
Belief can be an anchor that keeps us pointed in the right direction. The problem is that belief requires adherence to some version of connect-o. Even acceptance of things that seem highly probable can turn out to be grossly mistaken. The world is much less coherent than we would like it to be. The narratives mislead us.
Which brings me back, however improbably, to Paul Volcker. It’s received wisdom that Volcker broke inflation during the early eighties by jacking up interest rates. This may or may not be a good reading of correlation as cause. What he almost certainly accomplished was the creation of a Cult of the Fed, which flourished under “Maestro” Greenspan, grew mossy late in Bernanke’s run, and encounters skepticism under Mrs. Yellen. We’ve reached a moment in that belief system as uncomfortable as the day a LaRouchie discovers the Queen of England isn’t running drugs. The Fed cult was based on an inductionist’s faith that mounds of macroeconomic arcana could enable central bankers to know where interest rates should be set, following on an occultist’s belief that they should be set at all.
Here is why the problem is serious. It isn’t just nutty people who knit together theories from strings of data that may or may not represent reality. It’s rational, educated people, too. Think of policy wonks. They know the minutiae of energy, health care, trade, interest rates, investment, art, culture and morality. They discover regularities on whiteboards, with the confidence of statisticians who know everything except the size of the group from which their data sets are drawn. Protractors in hand, they can prove it all, just as Herb Quinde could prove my wife’s ties to the Anglo-American secret treehouse society.
The problem of induction afflicts the dotty and the sane alike. It’s more amusing when the connections are wacky. It’s trouble for the rest of us when they seem to make sense.
July 28 2017
Do the Dots Ever Connect? — II
It’s a pity for many reasons that Karl Popper didn’t live longer, but in particular what would he have thought of what happened to astrophysics not quite twenty years ago?
For those unfamiliar: Popper is best known for his concept of demarcation: that there is a divide between intellectual effort that qualifies as science and every other sort. Popper’s demarcation is testability, or falsifiability—in distinction from the practice of collecting data in justification of a theory. He remarks that you can find this latter sort of corroboration for just about any nonsense, including astrology. But a scientific theory must be able to withstand tests, which means it must have a predictive element. Disprove the prediction and you’ve falsified the theory. The poster child, as you’ll probably find at Wikipedia, is General Relativity, which predicted (for reasons I don’t begin to understand) that light would bend as it passed a gravity well. It wasn’t a minor point, apparently, but essential to the theory. If light were observed not to bend, General Relativity would be in trouble. An eclipse early in the last century provided an opportunity to test this proposition, and the prediction was borne out. (Now the Hubble telescope picks up evidence of the phenomenon on a cosmic scale, and high school students can marvel if they wish at the beauty of gravitational lensing.) That didn’t mean, by Popper’s standard, that General Relativity had been proven correct. It meant that it had withstood substantial challenge. The more a theory can survive repeated, ingenious challenges, the more respect it earns. It’s that kind of corroboration that Popper found valuable.
But there is a tentativeness in all this. The best we can say, by Popper’s reckoning, is that this is how things appear to be at this time. Tomorrow may bring new information that undoes our most strongly held conviction. And it is the negative discovery—the one that negates prior understanding—that advances our knowledge. Popper died in 1994, at age 92. If he had held on a few years longer, he would have seen a dramatic negation in astrophysics. It is as close as you come to settled science that systems lose energy. Therefore it was believed that the universe itself must be losing energy and that its rate of expansion had to be slowing. How could it be otherwise? In the late 1990s, Adam Riess at Johns Hopkins was among the astrophysicists who tested red shift in far-off supernovae and came up with evidence that no, despite everything the discipline believed, the expansion was accelerating. The impact of this evidence is hard to overstate. It turned on its head much of what scientists thought they knew about the mechanics of the universe.
The Space Telescope Science Institute at Hopkins holds regular lectures as part of its public outreach program. It was poignant to hear this program’s host lament one evening that he had gotten his Ph.D. under “the old model.” He went on to say that the discipline used to believe it understood ninety-five percent of how the universe operates. Now it might understand five percent. Trying to cope, astronomers have devised space-fillers like “dark energy” to supply what’s missing in the equations.
I imagine Popper would have loved this upheaval. Right in front of us, a theory built logically on centuries of accumulated knowledge was demolished. It was falsification on a grand scale. It posed new questions, rather than supplying answers, and sent research off in new directions.
Popper titled his memoir Unended Quest. The book describes his search as a young man in Vienna for a demarcation to separate science from pseudo-science. Before he was done, he had consigned much of the soft sciences to the latter category. That wasn’t a declaration that their insights were useless. It was only a recognition that their claims weren’t susceptible to testing; they had to remain matters of belief, and assertions that they identified regularities in human affairs deserved skepticism. Popper noticed among other weaknesses a willingness of adherents to make ad hoc adjustments in theories in order to accommodate what critical observers might have taken as counter-examples. Soon after obtaining his doctorate, while working at a school, he described the symptoms of a troubled youth to one of Freud’s disciples, Alfred Adler. Adler based much of his work on a theory of inferiority complexes. Popper told the doctor he wasn’t certain how the young student’s symptoms fitted Adler’s theory. Oh, cried Adler, this fits my theory perfectly! How can you be certain, Popper inquired, when you haven’t examined the patient? I’m certain, Adler replied, because of the thousand previous examples I’ve seen. Popper replied, I assume with scorn: And now you have a thousand one. In Popper’s estimation, a theory that could accommodate every possible set of observations, including one not observed, wasn’t much of a theory.
It’s interesting to read books of clinical observations. The observations are hardly worthless. But are they science? Are they, in short, more than assemblages of anecdotes that lay, depending on the vanity of the author, varied degrees of false claim to scientific authority? The same question can be posed for narratives of history and other social sciences. Popper tried to answer this question with his demarcation theory. And his answer was: Sorry. No.
His attack on the validity of scientific induction was broad and deep, and so are its implications for all claims of knowledge—and with that, for all claims of authority derived from knowledge. This shaped Popper’s politics.
But first things first. The core assumption in induction is that the next example will be much like the previous ones—enough alike, in any event, to provide a basis for identifying some regularity. This isn’t a foolish assumption. It underlies every heuristic, and knowledge derived from prior examples can save us from repeated costly errors. But Popper’s argument is that there is no logical necessity underlying this assumption, in the way there is a necessity in deductive statements. If A supposes B and B supposes C, then necessarily A supposes C. But induction doesn’t have a comparable logical formula: it might be a bad idea to ignore prior observations, but they don’t logically require that the next example will be of the same sort. The hackneyed illustration of this point is the million white swans you see leading to a seemingly reasonable conviction that all swans are white. Or, in Nassim Taleb’s parable, the thousand days in the life of a Thanksgiving turkey leading it inductively to believe it is worshipped as a god: fed, cosseted, medicated, right up until the thousand first day, just before Thanksgiving.
Even the argument based on induction that “this is probably true” lacks a sound footing, by Popper’s reckoning. To speak of probabilities you have to know the number of examples from which you’re taking a sample, and know in advance the range of possibilities. A casino owner knows those things. The rest of us don’t know the extent of our environment or its variation. Those are what we want to learn, and sampling is an unreliable method; statistical sampling is a pretense at science unless you know the approximate size of the group from which you’re drawing samples.
This seems enormously frustrating, and the frustration may explain some of the neglect of Popper. If you’re a researcher, it must be hard to fall in love with someone who says your search for evidence in support or justification of a theory is misguided and, at its heart, false. It must be even worse if he says it’s the destruction of a theory—the observation of facts that are inconsistent with the theory’s claim of identifying a regularity of nature—that best advances our knowledge, pointing us away from error in a direction that may be less wrong. As the host at the Space Telescope said, he’d gotten his degree under the old way of looking at things. But there is no reason for us to believe that reality should be kind to our conjectures, or to careers built on them.
“It is part of my thesis,” Popper says in the preface to the second edition of Conjectures and Refutations, “that all our knowledge grows only through the correcting of our mistakes.” In short, the thousand confirmatory examples are of limited value, but the single non-confirmation, or refutation, is potentially (if it holds up) definitive. You would think that science would love such a powerful tool for refuting error.
There's an anecdote that tells of evolutionist J.B.S. Haldane being challenged at a lecture. A questioner asked, approximately, "What, sir, would falsify your Darwinian doctrine?" Haldane supposedly replied, "Rabbit bones in the Precambrian would be a problem." Darwinian theory precluded rabbits having lived a half-billion years ago. In that sense the theory was predictive—it predicted that no such observations would be made—and it was falsifiable: it included enough specific information that the contradiction of that information would potentially prove the theory wrong.
The more predictions a theory offers, the more information it contains, it follows the more valuable it is, because it explains potentially a great deal about the world. But also, to complicate this note perhaps more than it can stand—but this is neat—the less probable it is. “. . . [T]he probability of a statement (or set of statements) is always the greater the less the statement says; it is inverse to the content or the deductive power of the statement, and thus to its explanatory power,” Popper argued in a 1953 lecture. “Accordingly every interesting and powerful statement must have a low probability; and vice versa: a statement with a high probability will be scientifically uninteresting because it says little and has no explanatory power.” Thus science seeks “powerful and improbable theories.” That passage is easily misunderstood. “Improbable” isn’t an approximation of “absurd”; Popper is speaking of a theory that says a great deal that is specific, the multiple specifics increasing its explanatory power while reducing statistically its probability. And, as noted, the more specifics, the more potential for critics to find error.
“. . . [T]he method of science is criticism,” Popper wrote. And this may explain in part why you can ask contemporary science students about this father of the philosophy of science and receive in response a blank stare. Isn’t it more useful, they might say, to think about how to write grant proposals? Or to seek guidance in p-hacking? The structure of research is hardly given to destroying theories, least of all one’s own lab’s. Grants are given to prove, to affirm, not to undermine. The absolute disaster in replicability across a number of scientific fields is one possible consequence of this lack of a critical approach.
Marx and Freud suffer badly at Popper’s hands on the same, anti-inductivist ground. Popper’s 1936 paper, later published as The Poverty of Historicism, was a demolition of Marxism and other historicist doctrines. A key argument was stated concisely later by Amos Tversky, who observed that historians have displayed zero predictive skill. Yet the data available may be the very sets on which elaborate explanatory narratives are built after the fact. What does this say of the historicists' claims to have understood events, or of the explanatory value of their theories?
One can find this problem across disciplines. It isn’t just the wobbly-eyed stock market chart-reader who gets it right in retrospect time after time, but cannot forecast the market with any greater accuracy than chance would produce. Or the mogul whose formula for fortune-building denies randomness as a factor in his success. The Ph.D.s staffing the Federal Reserve have a proven inability to model the future, though it’s an article of faith in their historicist discipline—their inductive discipline—that events of the past establish patterns of regularities enabling economists to predict future economic activity with enough accuracy to guide policy that affects every citizen. This makes the false claims of a biolab p-hacker seem inconsequential by comparison.
Popper has been adopted by some on the political left. He was, in fact, a European Liberal, and his thinking meshed comfortably enough with that of Friedrich A. Hayek, another Liberal who challenged collectivism’s “scientism” and “pretense of knowledge,” that Popper’s essay collection Conjectures and Refutations bears a dedication to Hayek. The core idea they explored through their lives was the difficulty of knowledge, and the unspeakable damage done in the name of claims to knowledge that can never be proven. Popper inscribed The Poverty of Historicism as follows:“In memory of the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.” There were no such laws, only pretenses of knowledge cloaked in the guise of science but lacking the rigor of science; propagated by adherents whose many questionable motives included an eagerness to believe doctrines that could explain so much, if only they weren’t examined critically.
“What we should do, I suggest,” Popper said in a 1960 lecture before the British Academy, “is to give up the idea of ultimate sources of knowledge, and admit that all knowledge is human; that it is mixed with our errors, our prejudices, our dreams, and our hopes; that all we can do is to grope for truth even though it be beyond our reach. We may admit that our groping is often inspired, but we must be on our guard against the belief, however deeply felt, that our inspiration carries any authority, divine or otherwise. If we thus admit that there is no authority beyond the reach of criticism to be found within the whole province of our knowledge, however far it may have penetrated into the unknown, then we can retain, without danger, the idea that truth is beyond human authority. And we must retain it. For without this idea there can be no objective standards of inquiry; no criticisms of our conjectures; no groping for the unknown; no quest for knowledge.”
July 29 2017
The Notorious Jack Abramoff
In the early ’80s Jack Abramoff was a smart, stocky young man who had moved from the College Young Republicans to knocking down decent money working for a conservative foundation run by Lewis Lehrman. Lehrman, a drugstore heir, was serving in the early Reagan administration on the Gold Commission, which was revisiting whether the United States might be better served by a gold standard than by a central bank issue-at-will standard. (If you think that’s an unimportant subject, consider the price of a massage-parlor pick-me-up today versus the price in 1983. If you prefer, a loaf of bread is an adequate proxy.) In any case, Abramoff would show up for dinner at a friend’s house in Baltimore, and if his prospective wife came along she would bring their kosher meal. How she heated it in the friend’s debauched oven I never heard.
Abramoff’s father had had some connection with the movie business, and before long Jack was producing films. His first boffo was Red Scorpion, in which Dolph Lundgren turns against the Red army in an African pesthole—and I’m not sure what else happens as I’ve never seen more than fifteen minutes of Red Scorpion, assuming it wasn’t something else I watched with Dolph Lundgren gunning down Russians. The film was shot in what was known then as South-West Africa. Abramoff also did something or talked of doing something in the Marianas, but I can’t find confirmation of that. The common denominator was that a few jurisdictions were so desperate to get on the map that they would significantly subsidize production costs. Jack knew an opportunity when he saw it, and so some movies got made.
I saw him a few times but had no reason to stay in touch. Abramoff made another neat transition, becoming a top lobbyist in Washington. It was that role that got him into trouble and led to prison, but that’s getting ahead of the story.
In the early nineties, I became interested in a very low-priced stock called Ranger Industries, which had a little cash but a $50-million tax-loss carryforward. The shares twitched around in the five-to-ten-cent range. The guy running it collected a salary. What was needed, I thought, was an acquisition to put the tax-loss to use. In Ranger’s previous life, before bankruptcy, it had been in the entertainment business, sort of, with video games and a godawful line of toys known as Cabbage Patch Dolls. They also made small plastic swimming pools; the company was known then as Coleco Industries. After the 1986 tax act, it was difficult to use carryforwards if a company had a change of business or a change of ownership. But if you defined “entertainment business” loosely enough, maybe, I thought, you could stuff a small movie production operation into Ranger. And it happened I knew someone who had made movies. Best of all, he seemed to have made the films with other people’s money.
I raised a small partnership with the idea of trying to get control of Ranger’s stock, cut the salaried man loose, install Abramoff as president, and employ his skills at making movies without capital in places I didn’t want to visit. It seemed like a reasonable scheme. Two things were needed: some reason for confidence that the tax loss could be used, and Abramoff. I couldn’t get any law firm to commit on the first question, and about a half-hour into my meeting with Jack it was obvious he would be happy to take any check the company wanted to write but his interest went no further. He was making much bigger money lobbying for Indian tribes, hobnobbing with congressmen, and heaven knows what else. So the idea was a bust. I sent the partners their money back, dissolved the partnership and said the hell with it.
That was the last time I had contact with Jack Abramoff. But of course it wasn’t the end of Ranger Industries. And it wasn’t the end of Abramoff. The stories just diverge. Within a couple of years, the former management of Coleco—which had a better grasp of the reorganized company than I did—pulled a brilliant maneuver that bumped the value of my five-cent stock to just under $2. When Coleco was being reorganized, there was the usual problem of future liabilities. The company’s little plastic swimming pools were the kind that might have three or four inches of water in them. For some reason, pools like that are irresistible to people standing on balconies who say “Hold my beer!” and then jump. So as part of the reorganization, $12 million was set aside to deal with claims of future quadriplegics. The money was still there, in a product liability trust. Coleco’s former president, Mort Handel, and a partner went into court, convinced the bankruptcy judge that much larger coverage could be bought from Chubb or some other insurer. So the product liability protection was boosted, and suddenly about $10 million was freed up for the shareholders. Handel and his partner had a related deal waiting, or perhaps found one in a hurry, in which you could participate in a new oil company via Ranger or take the cash, just under $2 a share. I took the cash, chastened but nonetheless delighted: I’d been wrong about everything and still made money. The tax loss? Nobody cared.
Abramoff’s career was more spectacular. The trappings are colorful, lurid, and if you watched the news at the time, familiar. There was a gaming ship, a shooting in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a wayward congressman or two, Indian tribes that may have gotten clipped, ownership of a fancy D.C. restaurant: pretty much the story of Washington lobbying condensed into a one-man show. A few people went to prison, including Jack on tax and bribery matters. He did three years and change, got out in 2010, worked in a kosher pizza shop for a while, may have written a book, commented on the 2016 election. Wherever he is, he’s probably doing well. Brains make more of a difference in outcomes than any other characteristic.
Apart from the happy accident with Ranger stock, which had nothing to do with Jack, there’s one detail I like that does. One evening in the late ’80s we went to dinner at our mutual friend’s house in Baltimore. Jack Abramoff was back from his movie-making in Africa. He had brought along an old military rifle with the bolt welded shut. As we stood in the foyer, an Israeli friend arrived with his mother. Ziona was a thin woman dressed severely in black, gray hair in a bun. She spotted the rifle propped against a staircase, lifted it in delight and declared, “A Lee-Enfield! I had one of these in the Haganah! But oh—” she cried, trying to work the action, “—it’s broken!” She was a lovely woman we got to know slightly, as you can know someone who lives half the world away. That, too, really had nothing to do with Jack: we’d have gotten to know her anyway, but without the pleasant memory of her holding a stranger's rifle and recalling days when the stakes were higher than movies, stocks, or prison.
July 24 2017
Apropos of nothing. Hotel Sherman, Chicago. What year, I wonder.
July 6 2017
Last Look at Ayn Rand
This is a shot I took of Ayn Rand at her last public appearance, in November 1981 at a conference of the National Committee for Monetary Reform in New Orleans. I don't recall what she had to say except she wasn't too keen on Reagan. Jim Sinclair rightly called the gold market over for the foreseeable future. My Barron's colleague Peter Dubois and his wife were in New Orleans on vacation, so we had dinner together, spent the evening cursing the magazine's managing editor, and figuring that the conversation made it a working dinner I put the bill on the expense account. Rand died the following March. The managing editor made a stab at outliving all of us.
June 6 2017
Coming Up for Air
A friend recommended I read Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, and now I owe him dinner. Much of the novel is an extended complaint about the fraudulence of working-middle-class life. George Bowling, a fat 45-year-old Englishman, is dissatisfied with everything: his pessimistic missus, his two children, a suburban London house he will pay on forever, and the sorry fact that no woman will ever sleep with him again except for money. He buys a hot dog and finds the skin is stuffed with rotten fish. He buys a Havana cigar and concludes that “cabbages grow in Havana the same as anywhere else.” He heads along the Strand and reflects, “When you walk through a crowd of strangers it’s next to impossible not to imagine that they’re all waxworks, but probably they’re thinking just the same about you.” He earns about seven quid a week as an insurance salesman. It’s just the right amount to be absorbed by school fees, wireless fees, and other regular bills. But he has a secret. A racetrack flutter brought him seventeen quid, which he’s stashed away for himself. And as he goes out one raw English morning to pick up his new set of false teeth, George looks back on a life that seems to hold nothing for him—and concocts a lie to cover his brief return to Lower Binfield, the village where he grew up. It’s not that he’s sentimental about it. His father ran a small feed grain store that gradually went broke. But in Upper Binfield, near a manor house, there was a pond with huge fish that might be worth a few days’ pursuit.
It’s a clever enough book, written in 1938, published in ’39. What’s remarkable is that parts of it could have been written today. George attends a small political lecture where the speaker is drumming up opposition to Nazis. His talk is fervent. “A rather mean little man, with a white face and a bald head, standing on a platform, shooting out slogans. . . . He’s trying to work up hatred in the audience, but that’s nothing to the hatred he feels himself. Every slogan’s gospel truth to him. . . . [F]or a moment, with my eyes shut, . . . I saw the vision he was seeing. . . . It’s a picture of himself smashing people’s faces in with a spanner. Fascist faces, of course. . . . Smash! Right in the middle. The bones cave in like an eggshell and what was a face a minute ago is just a big blob of strawberry jam. Smash! There goes another! . . . And it’s all O.K. because the smashed faces belong to Fascists.”
Orwell, who hoped that freedom and socialism weren’t incompatible, had a keen eye for fervor. And for its political uses. In several passages, this novel looks ahead to the themes Orwell pursued a decade later in 1984. George Bowling isn’t afraid of the coming war, which he expects to begin around 1941. He’s too old to serve, and randomly falling bombs can’t hit everyone. “But it isn’t the war that matters, it’s the after-war. The world we’re going down into, the hate-world, the slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed-wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the Leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him.” And: “It’s all going to happen. All the things you’ve got at the back of your mind, the things you’re terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. . . . There’s no escape. Fight against it if you like, or look the other way and pretend not to notice, or grab your spanner and rush out to do a bit of face-bashing with the others. But there’s no way out. It’s just something that’s got to happen.”
George’s adventure in Lower Binfield is a bust, except for an accidental bombing of the town by a plane practicing for the war. The manor house in Upper Binfield has become an asylum for lunatics, and the fish pond has been filled in as a trash dump. George heads home to catch hell from his wife. There’s no way of telling whether he finds consolation when the war comes early, a few months after the book's publication.
June 5 2017
The Glass Eye Miracle
Religious tent shows traveled the Midwest well into the 1960s, and perhaps they still do. One troupe rented a downtown movie house in Moline, Illinois for a week in 1965 or ’66 and put on a show that included sermons, carnival tricks, and frequent passing of the collection basket among the mostly poor white audience. One of the performers was introduced as the man with a glass eye. I’ve forgotten whether it was the left or the right. He would appear to twist the orb from the socket, hold it aloft for the audience to see, then poke it back into his head. In a previous life he had probably been good at finding quarters behind boys’ ears. His working eye would be covered, and he would use the glass eye to read not only scripture but anything offered by the audience.
In writing this, I found accounts on the Internet of a Rev. Roscoe Ronald Coyne (1943-1994), of Sapulpa, Oklahoma, who worked the glass eye miracle on stage and television. I don’t know if he was with the crew that visited Moline. He would have been in his early twenties. According to one article, he claimed miraculous sight as early as age seven, and later joined the traveling church circuit along with faith healers and speakers in tongues.
By the time I heard about the show, the theater balcony was filled in the evenings with high school students and a cop to maintain order. The cop was indispensable. Not all of us had seen a miracle before.
I don’t remember if the local newspaper tumbled to this. It would have been fun if a sympathetic reporter had come over and talked to the charlatans: who they were, how much of the year they spent traveling small cities fleecing hicks, whether it was a decent living, what they did the rest of the time. A couple of years later I went out on an assignment of this sort myself. Actually, I volunteered. The Mississippi Valley Fair had a strippers’ tent that put on a mildly lewd show. I tried to find out the who’s and what’s of the business. All management would tell me was they picked up the performers in Chicago. They wouldn’t let me talk to the girls. I digress.
I had seen other miracles a few years earlier. A friend’s grandmother attended the Open Bible Church one town over. Virgil Bayme, who lived a few doors down from us and worked at a gas station, would get up during a service, dance a jig and speak in tongues. Brother Barrow, the pastor, would lay it on about sin and redemption. I heard later, from a friend who had visited an Open Bible church in Iowa, that when the preaching and praying got hot enough, parishioners would run outside to see if the roof was on fire. I didn’t see that happen on the Illinois side of the river, where we were more sophisticated.
One week, a revival preacher came to Brother Barrow’s church. This was odd because the church was a several-times-a-week revival show itself. But this circuit rider was there to cleanse the congregation of lingering devilry. He stood up front and as parishioners came up the aisle, one by one, he would spool up a fervent prayer for cleansing, then clasp his hand on a parishioner’s forehead, at which point the person would collapse backward into the hands of waiting catchers, who lowered the stunned penitent to the floor.
The visiting preacher was laying them out right and left in the aisles. At some point Brother Barrow’s wife—a spiritual lady, certainly—came forward, got zapped, and lying on the floor emerged from delirium just long enough to pull her hem below her knee before passing out again. I saw this from the safety of a back row. It never occurred to me to go outside and see if the roof was on fire. In off-hours, Brother Barrow sold shoes in downtown Moline. He was a pleasant man.
There are still Open Bible Churches, headquartered in Des Moines, according to an Internet site. Membership totals about 150,000 spread among 330 congregations. In June, they plan to have a convention in Palm Springs.
I should leave this topic, but there is something about the Midwest that in a mild form produces prayer chains on the Internet and bids for supernatural guidance at chicken-salad lunches. It’s comfortable with religious tents pitched at the edge of towns that seem to have too many miles between them, where afternoon clouds hold portents and there is a crazy kind of electricity in the air. Garrison Keillor made it sound amusing, but it isn’t.
May 11 2017
For a time in the 1980s, Richard Grenier was a stinky duck in the wrong pond: a more or less rightwinger reviewing movies for The New York Times. This was a problem, not to say an embarrassment. When Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi appeared in 1982, Grenier unkindly mentioned that the mahatma was a piss-drinker who slept naked if allegedly chastely with very young women who were purported to be his nieces, as well as a fellow who offered the helpful advice to Jews during the 1940s to die quietly. The newspaper of record for Very Tolerant Liberals might as well have had a primitive on board who celebrated Britain’s Falklands campaign, which in fact Grenier did. Soon evidence was found that in his days as a freelancer Richard Grenier sometimes said contradictory things about a movie for different publications. Oh, the shame. That was enough. He left The Times, returned to freelancing, and according to Wikipedia died in 2002 at the age of 68.
We met only once, at one of the soirees John Train used to hold in New York in the early ’80s. I’ve forgotten whether it was the one on Lyndon LaRouche, or Armand Hammer, or on our friends the Mujahideen who with CIA stingers shipped through Pakistan were chasing the Russians out of a soon-to-be-free Afghanistan. (Even in retrospect it’s not funny.) Grenier was a skinny, odd-looking fellow. I don’t remember if he had anything to say that afternoon. When he was at a typewriter, he certainly did.
The Marrakesh One-Two (1983) is a rollickingly mean novel. A screenwriter is having trouble coming up with a script for a biop of Mohammed. For one thing, it turns out Mohammed can’t be seen on screen; he is too holy. Neither can his family members, including the child bride; too holy. Then there are problems with the competing visions of the Prophet and Islam among the varied Arab state bankrollers. Do we leave in the harsher elements of Islam, the wife beating and chopping off of hands? Omar the producer says no, Mouna his fanatic (and oversexed) girlfriend wants Islamic purity and gore. Our screenwriter Burt reports, “The secret ambition was to have this movie a boffola not only in Egypt and Bangladesh, where everyone is dying of starvation anyway, but in the West, Goysville.” The book goes over the top fairly quickly. Much of the first-person account by Burt (author of the highly successful Biblical epic The Song of Jesus) is caustic fun. Of his Jesus film, Burt tells us, “[It] raked in all those shekels because of the knack I have with that kind of thing, an indefinable touch, that certain etwas. Yes, sir. Like when the camera vertical-panned down from Christ on the cross and there was Jimmy Stewart dressed as a Roman centurion and we were going to have him say, Surely this is the son of God. And suddenly it came to me, no by God. He should say VERILY, this is the son of God. And frankly I think that ‘verily’ made the picture. My, yes.”
A parallel plot involving the CIA is limp and reads like padding, as if the author discovered his satire couldn’t be sustained for 80,000 words. And Grenier tries here and there to have it both ways: satire and special pleading don’t combine well. The book in truth is a badly constructed hash.
Burt is unkind to Islam. He’s droll discussing female genital mutilation and honor killings in Jordan, has a fine time ridiculing a Libyan who assures him Islam brings a message of peace, then thrusts his tongue into Burt’s mouth to prove it. Grenier did enough homework to quote chapter and sura. The novel makes me wish I’d gotten to know him, if I wouldn't have had to pretend I liked his book.
Richard Grenier’s 1982 review in Commentary of The World According to Garp is available online. It’s clever and vicious. And it’s interesting to compare to current criticism.
Aubrey Menen (1912-1989) was a product of empire, an Englishman of Irish/Indian parentage who wrote one of the odder novels I haven’t been able to get very far into: The Prevalence of Witches. It’s about a fellow who decides he might as well own a country of his own and ventures to a part of India he calls Limbo to do so.
I’m not sure what happens next, if anything.
Menen also wrote an entertaining nonfiction book Dead Man in the Silver Market (1953), which recounts among other things his visits to the land of his father. He is at his strongest as an observer standing to one side, listening to characters such as the Last Nabob of India.
A nabob, it happens, is an Englishman of limited social distinction back home who has made enough of a fortune in India to be granted a knighthood by the Governor. This honor is portable and carried back to England allows the bearer to be almost as much of a “Sir” as someone knighted by the Queen. In the closing days of British rule in India, the new Governor determines that the honor will fall to one William Ponder (as Menen calls him), one of those people who have no talent except for arithmetic. This is not a bad qualification for someone about to be elevated to the status of gentleman. Menen notes that among the features of a good prospective nabob who is being “looked over” is blandness: conversation of “empty silences,” and certainly no awareness of art or recent literature. Ponder qualifies. “His rooms held a bookcase,” Menen relates. “He denied all knowledge of the books and said they were his wife’s. . . . I think he could have gotten away with collecting Chinese pottery. It was a thing they did in English country houses.” For all the Hindus’ devotion to nonviolence, the streets have gotten dangerous the day Ponder goes to Government House to receive his honor. So he rides on the floorboards of a car driven by a young woman who can converse with the rioters, and Menen comes along. He is essentially a sympathetic observer, or at least not overly cruel.
Menen tells us a bit about local fakirs, with some of whom he is friendly. Big Tim has a simple mind and a simple function: he joins a naked procession as part of a fertility ritual. Women who have been unable to conceive touch the “organ of generation” as Menen delicately calls it and, if the correct prayers are recited, become mothers. Some less scrupled fakirs in the procession may take direct action to help the women, Big Tim admits glumly. Less endearing is the former railway clerk who has been holding his arm aloft for twenty years and tells a local maharajah that he thereby holds up the universe.
The book’s theme is the similarity of the English and the Hindus in each race believing it is the pinnacle of human development. Menen’s bare-breasted Indian grandmother puts his Irish mother up in a separate house during a visit to the family coconut plantation in Malabar. A European would defile the Hindu household, he explains, besides which Europeans don’t bathe often enough for the Indian family’s taste (twice a day is standard at Grandmother’s). Aubrey himself is defiled by having been born in England. He could set himself toward purification, he is advised, by drinking a cup of cow urine, but this he declines to do. As for his grandmother’s limited wardrobe, she believes that any woman who covers herself above the waist must have an adulterous scheme in mind.
Menen is less successful as a polemicist. His mildly amused rationalism is agreeable enough, though in no sense original. His satirical jibes at the English, in which he mostly comments rather than reports, are old hat. Possibly they seemed fresher in 1953.
Nothing for it, I’ll have to go back for another try at The Prevalence of Witches.
April 30 2017
The Notorious John Rees
I knew John Rees for more than thirty years, and we were friends during most of that time. He was an unreconstructed scoundrel, who flirted with evangelical Christians (an occasional guest on Pat Robertson’s TV show), Moonies, and Jewish civil rights groups, hobnobbed with anyone who might offer him an advantage, spied on leftwingers, hired out to rightwingers, got sued by zanies on both sides, and believed, as far as I could tell, not a single thing—except, possibly, that if there was a reasonably attractive woman around she would be good for a tumble.
He told unbelievable stories about himself, and as a point of principle I believed them.
He described the Christians as God-botherers, pitched the Soviet menace to customers of a promoter (later jailed) who peddled gold bullion, ran a leftwing bookstore in Washington, canoodled with radicals under an alias or two, reported on them to the FBI, and later, wearing a journalist’s hat, interviewed luminaries such as Jeane Kirkpatrick and prospective GOP candidate Ronald Reagan for a small magazine affiliated with the John Birch Society. His wife worked for the Birchers’ Congressman, Larry McDonald.
He was the last paramour of novelist Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place, and became her heir by a deathbed will.
It’s a favorite pastime of professional uplifters to invite innocents to name the people who have influenced them most: a memorable pastor, a teacher, always a moral example of some sort. John Rees introduced me to my wife and—quite separate from that—taught me the useful term “fuckwit.”
As for his stories: There was one about a wife in England carrying on with a chef for the House of Commons, who squared matters by giving John cooking lessons. The tuition seemed to be limited to roast beef, leg of lamb, Yorkies and Christmas pudding. There was a tale of his having been in Kenya during the Mau-Mau uprising and, in the role of MP, discovering a debasement of the common room sugar tin. The blemish was explained, he said, when he caught a conscript having the barracks kitten lick sugar off his genitals. I asked, “What did you do?” John said, “Well I beat the shit out of him, of course.”
For many years, John and an Irish-American wife ran a home industry, publishing a small newsletter called Information Digest. Using a network of informants, the publication reported on the activities of many political enthusiasts, from the radical left to the potty right. They got sued, if my fading memory serves, by organizations as diverse as the National Lawyers Guild, the LaRouchies, and Liberty Lobby. Nobody collected. For one thing, the Reeses kept themselves judgment-proof, living comfortably on what John later maintained, in a dispute with the Internal Revenue Service, was the kindness of friends. (The IRS didn’t collect, either.) They avoided suits in other ways. If a particularly juicy fact or insinuation came along, Larry McDonald could be counted on to enter it into the Congressional Record. Thereafter, Information Digest was immune from libel claims, merely reporting what was in the Record.
They served a useful purpose in providing fuller disclosure of mischevious busybodies who preferred to control their narratives. Does it matter that a peace spokesman has had a lifelong romance with Stalinism? Of course it does. Does it matter that people talking liberty out of one side of the mouth fulminate anti-Semitism out of the other? Yes, indeed. Information Digest was a privately produced Consumer Reports on political peddlers of many sorts.
Did John believe in anything? He disliked Communists, perhaps, while finding them, along with almost everything else in life, entertaining. But mostly I think he enjoyed subverting fools, and pulpits and political movements have always been awash in fools. I doubt his conviction went any deeper than that. He would have been embarrassed by a suggestion he was a believer.
His insults could be subtle, but much of his conversation was raw—with a plummy English accent. When I expressed fondness for Edith Piaf, he replied helpfully, “All the homosexuals in the John Birch Society like Edith Piaf.” Subtle enough; it took me a moment. By contrast, when McDonald and Rees were having a dispute over who should call the shots in a political venture—John or a woman known to the Congressman—John demanded, “What has she ever delivered except a wet pussy at midnight?” For a while he was put off at McDonald, a public pietist who liked a little on the side even when it interfered with his cause. Then McDonald was killed when Korean Air Lines flight 007 was shot down, and as a rightwing martyr to Soviet tyranny the Congressman became, for a while, as useful dead as he had been alive.
John’s role as an FBI informant may have been hampered by doubts about how many sides of the street he was playing. After the Newark race riots, he tried to float a scheme in 1968 for the government to fund a $743,000 program that would recruit both white and black radicals to lead a peace patrol. John knew plenty of both. If he’d managed to put them on his payroll and gotten paid by the FBI for informing on them, he’d have sat in the middle of a perfect circle.
Cops found him unreliable, but a number were his friends. At his house in Baltimore, the company might include retired CIA and State Department officers, a state policeman or two, a congressional staffer, and occasionally a traveler from France or South Africa with uncertain credentials. He was friends with Arnaud de Borchgrave, then editor of the Washington Times, and Robert Moss, former editor of The Economist’s Foreign Report. He was well-known and loathed by lefty groups such as the Institute for Policy Studies. He was financed in part by Richard Mellon Scaife. For a time he did business with Carl Icahn and Hank Greenberg; on what basis he sold himself to them I’ve no idea.
When Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media sent Daniel James and John to Hungary in the mid-’90s, I tagged along at my expense. A center-right government had come to power, the first since the Soviet Union’s collapse, and was purging Communists from the media. This provoked cries of fascism from the international left. John and Dan were supposed to do fact-finding. Dan asked questions. John leapt cheerfully into supporting the purge. So did I, with journalistic credentials that by then were wilted with age. The meals were good, the strip club was dismal, but being accused by a British leftist on Hungarian TV of coming from Langley was priceless.
When John was paying his own bills, he skimped on accommodations. One day in New York, meeting after nights at our respective hotels, he complained of having been kept awake. I asked what had happened. He explained that in the next room, separated by too thin a wall, were two noisy men. He would hear a slap, followed by “Whose little bumsy wumsy is this?” A slap. “Whose little bumsy wumsy is that?” Once again, of course, I asked, “What did you do?” John replied, “I hammered on the wall and shouted, ‘Will you get your assholes sorted out so I can sleep!’”
Yes, of course.
At times he toted a small Beretta with a tip-up barrel, on the theory "better twelve to try you than six to carry you." It caused consternation when he realized he was approaching airport security without having divested himself. When the thing came into my possession for a short time, during a domestic set-to, and I took it to the range, it was so clogged with pocket lint that I could neither fire it nor drop the magazine.
There had been an England wife, a woman in Newark, a Baltimore wife and, eventually, a Washington wife with whom a knot was tied, if memory serves, in Mombasa. Although the family business continued for a time, there was an inevitable break, sides were chosen, and our friendship ended. I was surprised to get a call in early 2013 inviting me to a memorial service for John at a saloon in New York. The man I heard described was unrecognizable to me: an environmentalist, a mentor to an English grandson, a fellow of honor and purpose. I could only laugh. My friend had reinvented himself again, and found takers.
As I said at the outset, John was a scoundrel. How much damage he did, I’m not sure. Possibly, to some people, a lot.
April 30 2017
There are a few credible sources on the Internet regarding John Rees. None of the accounts is flattering. The first link, to an FBI archive that was declassified in 2008, is almost indecipherable because of garbles and redactions. I’ve provided a cleaned-up version of excerpts below.
“Enclosed for Bureau and Chicago are two copies, and for each other office designated, one copy of a monograph entitled ‘The NGI Report on SDS [garbled] 1968’ dated July 19, 1968, and researched by [redacted but clearly John Rees]. This item was delivered to the Reception Desk of the Newark Office for SA [Special Agent] AUSTIN G. OSBORN on 7/29/68, by a representative of [redacted]. As the Bureau is aware and for information of other offices receiving the enclosure, [redacted] of National Goals, Inc., (NGI), . . . has been the subject of considerable unfavorable publicity in the past, including his involvement, in early 1964, in the estate of GRACE METALIOUS, the deceased author of the novel, ‘Peyton Place’. More recently in June, 1968, a plan he proposed brought fire from varied sources when he proposed utilization of Government funds to make militant leaders of white and Negro organizations paid directors of a 300-man community peace patrol in Newark, NJ. It was opinion of agents whom he has contacted that [redacted] appears to be a ‘name dropper’ and one who would exaggerate to make a point. Accordingly, the Bureau has instructed that NK [presumably the Newark FBI office] . . . should not initiate any future contacts with him. . . .
“On April 16, 1965 Detective Joseph Trainor of the New Jersey State Police personally requested information concerning the SUBJECT of this file. The file was obtained and the contents thereof were relayed to Trainor. Trainer indicated that the State Police was conducting an investigation of the SUBJECT and of the organization which he presently heads. This organization is known as National Goals Inc. and has its headquarters in the Hallmark Apartments in Newark. Trainor stated that the organization concerns itself with anti-riot training of police departments and some government agencies . . . on a contract basis. He said that certain individuals who are connected with Rees have criminal records and leave much to be desired in terms of being 'desirable businessmen.’ Trainor stated that Rees is very close to the Commissioner of Police, Dominick Spina, and to Mayor Addonizio of Newark and does, in fact, have free access to their office, sits in on their council meetings and can obtain information which many other people in official capacities cannot get. In addition to the interest of State Police the local office of the [missing] [ha]s an interest in the SUBJECT; his activities and his organisation plus the fact that they are curious about the entree into City Hall and city activities. Both agencies are concerned with Rees because of his accomplices and because they are not sure of the true aims and purpose of his organization. Col. David Kelly, Director New Jersey State Police Department, is himself vitally interested. In the course of conversation Trainor mentioned the name HERB ROMERSTEIN whom the writer has known for years. Romerstein is a former member of the Communist Party and was an informant for the New York District of this Service and the New York State Police for many years.
“At the request of Detective Trainor the writer telephonically contacted Romerstein who came to the office voluntarily. Romerstein indicated that he is still employed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and is in fact investigating the Newark riots of July last, as a preliminary step to the HCUA hearings which are to be held in Newark concerning Newark in the very near future. Romerstein indicated that he knows Rees, very well and that Rees, a former Royal Air Force man who claims to have had ten years of service with the RAF and who further claims to have been a bodyguard to a member of the British Royal Family, is a former British Intelligence Officer. He said that National Goals Inc. is a part of Applied Electronics in Metuchen, New Jersey, which is owned in part by David Wilentz, former Attorney General for the State of New Jersey. He said that Rees is a highly intelligent individual and he mentioned the latter connection with Grace Metalious, the author of ‘Peyton Place,’ clippings about which are contained in the file. Rees is presently married or lives with a mulatto girl and her children and Romerstein was not sure about the details of a formal marriage. He stated that the girl’s former husband was a notorious hoodlum in the Brooklyn area but he claimed not to know the former husband's name. The wife's first name is Marianne.
“Romerstein indicated that National Goals has one man working on a full-time basis in Washington, D.C. and presently has one man assigned to the Essex County Sheriff's Office. He said that the purpose of the organization is to provide riot training and guidance to whomever contracts for such assistance. He further indicated that this is a private non-profit organization which is not, to the best of his knowledge, financed by any government organization.
“[The] Investigation into the activities of SUBJECT and of National Goals Inc. is being continued by the New Jersey State Police. It does not appear at this time that there is any basis for Service action but arrangements have been made for information to be relayed to the Service as it develops. Rees presently resides at 10 Hill Street, Apt. 8R, Newark, New Jersey, (Hallmark Apartments). Robert E. Ford, Chief Special Investigations” . . .
“National Goals last spring drew up $743,741 proposal to hire black and white militants for a ‘community peace patrol.’ The plan was rejected by the Justice Department and denounced by [New Jersey] Gov. Hughes. The U.S. Department of Labor is still attempting to recover $7,597 that was paid by the city to Rees as research director of the federally financed New Careers training program. Rees resigned last spring after auditors questioned the amount of time he was spending on the job. The Labor Department has also blocked payment of $12,100 for a training firm for which Rees is a consultant. A department spokesman said federal auditors have now authorized payment of $4,900 to the firm.”
When the Mob Gets Loose
If another wave of refugees is turned loose on Europe, as Turkey’s Erdogan has threatened this week to do, one minor consequence will probably be a spike in sales of Jean Raspail’s 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints. It’s an unpleasant book, eighty percent garish horror, twenty percent (at the end) farce. When it was published here in translation in 1975, it met harsh reviews, some of the nicer of which described the author as a racist: Raspail imagined what was then barely imaginable, waves of Third World refugees washing into Europe and, bringing their primitive cultures with them, smothering the weakly tended candles of Western Civilization. It’s written (at least in the translation) in high indignation, full of lurid imagery that ricochets between human sympathy and revulsion. As a mere sample, the monstrous figure leading the crusade is called the Turd Eater, upon whose shoulders rides a deformed creature that cannot speak or walk but seems to direct the will of mindless masses swarming decrepit freighters for the promised land of Europe. Probably not the choice for a neighborhood book club.
Raspail’s theme is the weakness of the West, its lack of conviction in itself, and, in the end, its inability to forcibly hold at bay a peril that promises its destruction. The world Raspail sees as lost isn’t that of European Liberalism, though it goes down too, of course, but of what I suppose Euro conservatives would call Christendom. Its betrayers are its defenders: government, the church, intellectuals. Whether Raspail’s brutal portraits of these actors were caricatures or keenly observed might have been debatable in 1973; they’re recognizable in the flesh in 2017.
What brought Raspail to mind wasn’t the prospect of another refugee flood in Europe, or its immediate political consequences. Rather it was the dustup in early March, when Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute was forcibly prevented from delivering a lecture at Middlebury College in Vermont, and a liberal professor was injured when rioters twisted her neck. The Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger, having established her disagreement with Murray’s scholarship, had consented to be his interlocutor. Things never got to a question period. The violence has produced the expectable hand-wringing over intolerance on campuses. I wouldn’t have bothered writing a note about that, because what’s new? What was interesting was Stanger’s essay in The New York Times yesterday, which mixed disapproval of the violence that had put her in a neck brace with understanding of the “righteous anger of many of those who shouted us down.” She writes that the country is in a bad mood, seeming to attribute this to the recent national election in which candidate Trump “dehumanized many groups of marginalized people.”
When the mob attacked Murray, a college officer and herself, “I was in fear for my life,” she says. Part of the buildup to the riot she attributes to smears directed at Murray by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which labeled the author of The Bell Curve, a 1994 study of IQ and its economic consequences, as a “white nationalist.” Not true, attests Professor Stanger, Charles Murray was “a member of the courageous ‘never-Trump’ wing of the Republican party.” Also, he’s in favor of same-sex marriage. She chastises her academic colleagues who added to the furor without bothering to read or discuss Murray’s work.
Fair enough, but this raises a question. Suppose the speaker had been someone from the Trump administration? Or a real-life white nationalist? Would the violence have been less indefensible (and the mob’s anger perhaps even more “righteous”) in Stanger’s view? Last week The Federalist pointed out that if you look at the YouTube video of the lecture-hall protest that was silencing Murray, around minute 33.20 Professor Allison Stanger is seen, arms raised over her head, clapping and chanting to the “Black Lives Matter” mantra.
It was later, when Murray and his hosts attempted to flee the campus, that a mob attacked and Stanger was injured. Here’s what’s amusing, in a way Jean Raspail might appreciate. In theory, there is no higher intellectual value in Western Liberalism than the free pursuit of knowledge. That is, it’s the value that must be defended above all others. Yet in the video you’ll see Stanger joining in the coercive suppression of Charles Murray’s lecture. Later that evening, she’s physically attacked. And it seems to her, we gather, so unfair: Not only is Charles Murray not a white nationalist, but Professor Stanger disagrees with his espoused views (she never says which ones). As the invading horde in Raspail’s novel destroys Europe, a few of the equivocal defenders just can’t understand why it’s happening to them, too. They clapped and chanted at the right moments, shouted down opponents. But now their necks are being twisted. So unfair.
March 14 2017
My Fanac Friend, Gene Simmons
When I was in high school, a little more than fifty years ago, I had a habit of not paying attention. There was a sound reason for this, I thought: there were more interesting things to do, like read a science fiction paperback (didn’t matter if it was Clifford Simak or Murray Leinster) or publish a fanzine. If you weren’t a science fiction fan in the 1960s, you may not know that a fanzine is an amateur publication, usually mimeographed or hectographed, containing articles, letters, drawings, reviews, and perhaps fiction.
The benefit of science fiction fandom lay in broadening the world. I published a small magazine, The Solarite, for the last year or so of school, and had a few contributors and subscribers from as near as Belleville, Illinois, and from as far away as New York City. I traded subscriptions with other amateur publishers, spent evenings typing argumentative letters to bigger zines like Yandro, in distant Indiana or Ohio. Some of the writers and artists in these publications became professionals, Jeff Jones, Dan Adkins, Juanita Coulson, Tom Dupree, Tom Reamy; a number were in their late twenties or older, tied into a society of teenagers by a lifelong love of science fiction.
When high school ended, I knew three people in New York: Marty Ross, in the far East Bronx, John Berry, in Bronxville, and Gene Klein, in Jackson Heights, Queens. That made it fairly easy to decide, after several days of orientation at a state university, to consider options. The university looked a lot like a continuation of high school. New York, which I saw portrayed romantically every week on Naked City, looked like the rest of the world. That fall, I got on a train that went up into Canada, then came down the Hudson to Manhattan. My friend Marty Ross helped me find a $15-a-week apartment on 223rd Street, off White Plains Road. We fudged it a little with the landlord, asserting I had a job along with Marty at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. (The landlord took my mother’s name and address so he could write her that I was okay.) Next day I went job-hunting, and for some reason The Times hired me as a copy boy.
I had traded letters with the fellow out in Queens, and drawn a cover for a fanzine he published, Cosmostiletto. One evening I went over to his apartment, met his mother, had dinner, and we talked science fiction, though I’ve read (not having remembered) that Gene was more interested in comic books. I don’t remember much of the visit. His mother was pretty. Gene was a couple of years younger than me. They lived in a brick building in Jackson Heights—big, small, I don’t remember. We must have corresponded a bit after that. But my fan activity was fading. I was trying to write fiction, was earning a thin living, spent many off-hours wandering New York as far south as Coney Island and to any subway stop that sounded interesting. When there was time, I was wondering what I would do about the draft. There wasn’t time for publishing the long-planned sixth issue of my fanzine (it still sits in a box in a closet). I lost touch with Marty, lost touch with John Berry, lost touch with Gene. I think of them and others in fandom now and then.
I try to pretend I’m not nostalgic for anything, but it’s a lie. I have a boxed set of Naked City episodes. Once in a while, I Google the names of people I’ve known. I did that this morning. There’s no trace of Marty Ross. There was the linked article about a famous fellow who used to publish fanzines when he was a youngster in Queens and went by the name Gene Klein—long before the world learned of Kiss and Gene Simmons.
There’s no reason this should be of interest to anyone, including me. Except: I tend to assume that people’s lives continue on whatever track I last saw them on. The school valedictorian becomes a business leader. The bow-legged cheerleader spends herself by thirty. The comics-book fan in Queens writes comic books or becomes an accountant. Not always, it seems. I joked with a friend that I should write to Gene Simmons and tell him that if he’d published better fanzines he might have had a career.
February 12 2017
Kahneman and Tversky
Two books, one from this winter the other from 2011, celebrate a partnership that helped reshape the way we think about thinking and decision-making. Some of the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman is good for parlor tricks. Several years ago, a friend of my son’s introduced me to the Problem of Linda, and I’ve been annoying people with it ever since. The two Israeli psychologists demonstrated that we aren’t very good at thinking statistically (as most people’s answers to the Linda question illustrate), but they did so much more than that. They explored the useful/perilous role of heuristics in our thought, identifying numerous biases that tilt judgment and reinforce it to faulty ends: the availability of information, the resemblance of one thing to another, the ease of substituting a simple question for a difficult one, susceptibility to a narrative fallacy, the influence of anchoring, the power of framing, the deceptions in small samples, deference to theory, and our overriding desire for coherence. Their work was so fertile that it reached outside the field of psychology to help reshape theories of decision-making in economics, for which Kahneman was awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002; Amos Tversky had died in 1996. Their work has affected fields from military training to sports management, from medicine to stock market speculation. It’s hard to overstate its importance.
It’s also hard to overstate the pleasures in these two books. Both are playful, readable, charming and suffused with the puzzled joy of discovery.
Michael Lewis is a deft popularizer. His books on Wall Street, including The Big Short and Flash Boys, provided splendid descriptions of the 1998 mortgage-securities crisis and the Street’s fine art of front-running customer orders. His Moneyball (2003), which I haven’t read, explores the use of statistics in sports management. The first 50 pages of The Undoing Project focus on the problem of uncertainty again through a sports lens, but it’s really unnecessary: Kahneman and Tversky needn’t come in through the back door. When he gets to the two men, and the zig-zag careers that brought them together, Lewis shines. Amos Tversky emerges as an almost mythical figure, Israeli-born geek who became a paratrooper, the smartest, most confident and happiest man in any room. What an event when Danny Kahneman, the self-doubter, invites Tversky to address a seminar at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1969 and then declares that he disagrees with everything Tversky said.
What developed over fifteen years was a partnership in which both men preferred one another’s company to anyone else’s. As they devised tests to determine how people actually make decisions, passers-by outside their offices heard rollicking laughter. They were fascinated by the willingness of rational people, including statisticians, to contradict themselves depending on how a number of options were presented. In the simplest form, telling someone there’s a 90 percent chance of success in a life-saving medical procedure induces a different response from telling him there is a 10 percent chance of failure. How is that people who are risk-averse when offered one gamble become risk-seekers when offered an inverted version that is statistically identical? The venerable model of utility theory, which addressed how people viewed gains and losses, was wanting. By 1975, the authors presented a draft of one of their seminal papers: a discussion of decision-making under uncertainty. The work, developed as Prospect Theory, made them famous.
The partnership became strained. Tversky accepted a lifetime appointment at Stanford. Kahneman headed for a less illustrious post at the University of British Columbia. By the end of the decade, reflecting on people’s reaction to the death of a nephew in a fighter-plane accident, and on his own reactions to upheavals in his private life, Kahneman was looking at the use of counter-factual stories as a way of dealing with regret. The partnership had defined three heuristics that shaped thought: availability, anchoring and representativeness. Now Kahneman was thinking of a fourth heuristic, a “simulation heuristic,” described by Lewis as “all about the power of unrealized possibilities to contaminate people’s minds.”
As Tversky’s fame grew, so did Kahneman’s insecurity. They were collaborating at a distance when Tversky proposed a counterattack on a German critic. Reluctantly Kahneman joined in the research and the Problem of Linda emerged as a test of subjects’ rationality. The results were dumfounding. It didn’t matter whether the test was given to undergraduates, graduate students or professors. “People were blind to logic,” Lewis reports, “when it was embedded in a story.” Kahneman fed the test to a dozen students, and all of them fell for it. They tightened the test to an essential alternative—shoving “their subjects’ noses right up against logic,” Lewis recounts. Which statement is more probable: “Linda is a bank teller.” or “Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.” Eighty-five percent chose the latter statement, defying logic. It was a stunning discovery. They tried other versions of the same problem. Their conclusion, presented in a 1983 paper, was that even well-educated, mathematically literate people do not instinctively think statistically or logically when presented with a story.
The partnership’s insights are broadly applicable, seemingly reaching into any theory-driven non-mathematical work as well as into day-to-day practical decision-making. Regarding the narrative fallacy, Tversky commented, “In contrast to our skill in inventing scenarios, explanations, and interpretations, our ability to assess their likelihood, or to evaluate them critically, is grossly inadequate. Once we have adopted a particular hypothesis or interpretation, we grossly exaggerate the likelihood of that hypothesis, and find it very difficult to see things any other way.” Equity investors who “buy the story” will know what he meant. Almost in passing, Tversky gave a talk to historians that cut the ground out from under their causal narratives: “All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This ‘ability’ to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle, flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe there is a less uncertain world than there actually is. . . .”
Lewis’s book benefits enormously from access to memos the partners wrote, the recollections of people who knew one or both of them, and of Kahneman’s description of their experiences working separately and together. The final chapter’s triumphal tone, as assorted acolytes such as Cass Sunstein use Kahneman and Tversky’s work as a basis for public policy decisions, is laughably counter-factual and a pretty good example of what the partners noted as a tendency to be blinded by theory. But it’s a minor blemish, as is the absence of an index, in an excellent introduction to two important thinkers.
In Thinking, Fast and Slow, published in 2011, Kahneman walks us through the partnership’s work (and other researchers’) like a tour guide wearing a straw hat and waving a black cane. “Here,” he says engagingly, “is this absurdity. Here is another. Can you believe that we don’t notice how often our conclusions defy logic?” Revisiting this book after Lewis’s adds to the pleasure. Kahneman and Tversky worked primarily from noticing their own mistakes and wondering: If we believed that, how many other people do—surely it’s not that many?—and in any case why?
What, for example, do you make of the fact that a tiny county in West Virginia has the highest bladder cancer rate in the nation? Or the fact that a year later it has the lowest? How is it that we perform less well in a state of cognitive ease, and that our focus and performance can be improved by the simple act of frowning? (For years we’ve reminded our son heading into an exam, Scowl at the damned thing!) Why do we succumb to the simplest forms of emphasis in messages, favoring a statement in bold-face type? Why do we find banal aphorisms truer if they are rhymed? How can we be primed into falling for the gimmick of repeating “shop” a dozen times and then responding to the question, “What do you do at a green light?” by answering “Stop.” These aren’t, as it happens, trivial questions. People who understand how we think are adept at manipulating our opinions and decisions. Imagine the television cameras descending on the small county in West Virginia with the highest bladder cancer rate in the U.S. The reporters look around, discover a paper mill upstream. An environmental professor is found to declare causation. The story of corporate greed goes viral. We’re outraged at the callousness. A year later, the mill is still operating, and the bladder cancer rate is zero. The reporters do not return to discuss the “law of small numbers.” Kahneman does, and his reader will take a deep breath before accepting casually reported statistics in the future.
Or you’re thinking of buying a house. You find one you love. The comparable for similar houses in the area is $200,000. Ideally, you would like to get your house for a bit less than it’s worth. The seller has listed the house at $275,000. You know that’s too much. What do you offer? Offering seven percent less than a house is worth is a normal buyer’s strategy. But offering $186,000 looks like you’re trying to steal the place compared to the $275,000 listing price. The listing price is an example of “anchoring,” and many people’s opening bid will be north of $200,000. Auditors try to avoid being anchored by previous years’ results as they review corporate records. Other professionals try to avoid being anchored by prior information. Does a patient have a recurrence of last year’s inner ear disturbance, or is there a brain tumor this time?
Much of the charm in Kahneman’s book is in his admission of error—and the persistence of belief in the face of that admission. His account of testing soldiers for leadership roles in the Israeli army is a delight; the assessments prove worthless, but his team presses on anyway. His discovery of senior Israeli Air Force officers’ neglect of regression to the mean in assessing pilot performance—and in determining a proper reaction to pilot underperformance—could be applied across many disciplines. His encounters with prominent American money managers who reject evidence that their results are random will surprise few investors.
A reader will find that he wants to be tried by a judge who has had a good lunch, or graded by a professor who admires the first exam answer and proceeds directly to the others. Discussions of the sometimes overlapping phenomena of priming, cognitive ease, halo effects, focus, endowment effects, associative memory, representativeness, information availability and intensity, framing, and the classic gambles offered in studies of decision-making under uncertainty could lead even a confident reader to view his or her own decisions warily. Kahneman doesn’t exclude himself. After discussing Bernoulli’s errors and the Kahneman-Tversky breakthrough paper, “Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk,” he notes that “theory-induced blindness” has led to scholars overlooking “some absurd consequences” in certain Prospect Theory assumptions. He suggests that Prospect Theory gives too little weight to the gambler’s anticipation of regret in explaining the rejection of statistically sound risks.
Thinking, Fast and Slow pays its due to the partnership with Tversky. If Amos had survived, Kahneman says more than once, he would clearly have shared the Nobel. But Thinking, Fast and Slow also encompasses work Kahneman has done subsequently, and with different research partners. And it plays with a metaphor, that we operate with two mental systems. System One is fast and uses information at hand, which is quite often adequate but sometimes isn’t. System Two is slow and methodical, far more critical and less apt to jump to conclusions, and it comes to work only when we demand its attention. The body of the Kahneman-Tversky partnership’s work demonstrates the value of this plodding and reluctant worker.
February 5 2017
An Appreciation of Martha Argerich
This is a first-rate piece from the Washington Post, of all places. When we were younger, my wife and I would go to New York if Argerich was performing; so we heard her and Gidon Kremer doing the Schumann sonatas at Carnegie Hall, among other memorable evenings, and, in 1998, Argerich and Itzhak Perlman performing the "Kreutzer" in Saratoga Springs. The article mentions a film, Bloody Daughter, that is worth viewing if you are curious about the difficult alchemy of genius.
Martha Gellhorn didn’t like being described as Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. After they parted, she wouldn’t allow her publishers to tie his name to hers—and why should she? By her twenties she had a reputation as a journalist and fiction writer, before she met Hemingway in 1936. She covered the Spanish Civil War and WWII for Collier’s magazine. Her career and her life (1908-1998) continued long after Hemingway’s, though her name hasn’t endured as well, which is a shame.
Sitting somewhere in the house in a novel she wrote about the Germans and Czechoslovakia. It was written while she was still angry about what had happened in Spain, and about the inability of anyone to do anything about it. But she had reservations about exploiting Czechoslovakia’s tragedy in a work of fiction in which a woman journalist acts heroically. The tragedies weren’t, in any sense, her property. She seems to have been a fairly rare writer who viewed herself as critically as she did the other things she saw.
The novel I’ll get to someday. Gellhorn was a relentless traveler who made it to more than a hundred countries. Lately I’ve been reading a collection from the late ‘70s, Travels With Myself and Another. The “another” is Hemingway, who accompanied her to occupied China in the late 1930s and comes off better than most ex-spouses do. The collection could be called “My Most Horrible Travels,” which is the theme. There are four of them of substance: China, the Caribbean in the early 1940s, Africa in 1962, and Russia in 1972. All the accounts are sharply observed, acidic, and intensely uncomfortable: you share every itch, sunburn, rash, stink, stomach rebellion, and hour of despairing boredom the author suffered. What you may not share is Gellhorn’s inability to call it quits. The book is for the armchair traveler who will never leave his front porch again.
But it’s a delight. She is one of the least sentimental writers I’ve come across. The long section on Africa is stomach-turning, completely unacceptable if you have to believe that the most primitive humans must have redeeming Western traits. Yet it was to Africa that Gellhorn returned to live. Much of her writing is beautiful without being pretty. Much of the caustic humor is at her own expense. She was intensely interested in a world she recognized as awful. Fortunately for us, even when a magazine article wasn’t in prospect, she wrote home faithfully to her mother, and this collection draws on those reports. More than her one-time companion, Gellhorn seems to have been the real thing.
January 22 2017
Why I Don’t Demonstrate
Forty-eight years ago, a handful of holy fools gathered in Red Square to protest the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. They were arrested by the KGB. Their prison terms ran to three or four years. Several were sentenced to exile in Siberia. Two were sent to psychiatric hospitals. Shamefully, I’ve forgotten most of their names, as I had the name of Yuli Daniel’s companion (it was Andrei Sinyavsky) when they got five and seven years respectively of hard labor in 1966 for publishing satirical criticism of their homeland. Then there were the refuseniks, who were stripped of their livelihoods and in some instances jailed (for nine years in Natan Sharansky’s case) for seeking to emigrate. So. To protest in a dictatorship is an act of courage, and the stakes are high. I don’t know if I would have the courage. By contrast, the Women’s March yesterday, held to protest the outcome of a presidential election in a liberal society, was empty of every quality except self-indulgence. The protesters got to carry placards full of fatuous slogans. They mingled for a few hours of feeling good about conscience and ideals. They made noise. Hundreds of thousands of them. They let the world know where they stood: In perfect safety, as the police directed traffic. Then they went home.
January 22 2017
The Yugoslav Freighter
Forty-three years ago I boarded this ship without much idea of what I would do when I got off, except that it would be in Tangier. In those days Yugoslavia ran a passenger-freighter service between East Coast ports and Rijeka. It was a means of earning hard currency. Jugolinija (the spelling varies) was a wonderful deal for Americans. News Shipping, which served as the line’s American agent, had a posted price of $200 for a shared cabin (amenities down the hall) from the U.S. to Morocco, a bit more for people going on to Yugoslavia. Round trips were available.
There was a last-minute change of schedule, and the agents asked us to board in Savannah instead of New York. One of the pleasures of being twenty-five is that it doesn’t seem an imposition to take a night bus from Manhattan to Georgia, or to spend an unscheduled night or two at the John Wesley, an old railroad men’s hotel, in a city one has never seen.
I’ve forgotten the dimensions of the Tuhobic, though they’re probably available online. We had about eighty passengers, a mix of American retirees, vacationers, would-be adventurers, and Yugoslav nationals who had worked in the U.S. and were returning home. My cabin mate Rubin was a middle-aged dentist from New York. He carried a sketchpad and planned to go back into the Yugoslav hills and draw during the layover period before the Tuhobic sailed back to the States. In a way that seemed more or less inevitable even to young eyes, Rubin fell in love during the transit with a lady who had insufficient interest in him. Another passenger, a thin man who said he was a secretary at the Library of Congress, mocked Rubin until they nearly came to blows; when he drank too much and fell one night, cutting his scalp, nobody seemed unhappy for him. I couldn’t tell how his wife felt.
The passengers were interesting in ways I’ve never noticed on later ships. One man, whose face I can’t recall, whispered that he was keeping index cards on all the rest of us. An elderly farmer and his wife from Ohio enjoyed the top deck at night, where he wondered at stars stretching from horizon to horizon and talked into a warm wind that must have been from the Gulf current. A very tall, skinny bald man, a retired postal employee, had married a widow late in life and was gently protective of her. A blond school teacher from Atlanta fell at least temporarily for a handsome ship’s officer. Those are the only Americans I remember, and I liked them all—and wouldn’t mind rolling back the clock and doing it all again in their company.
The most exotic fellow was Benjie (I’ve no idea how he spelled it), an Arab who explained to me one evening on deck the superiority of darkness, including dark races, because—I must understand—what part of the eye is it that sees? The black part, of course. And what part of the day is reserved for love? The night. I make him sound amusing, but he was actually quite scary and threatened my cabin mate, who was Jewish.
After departing Savannah, we sailed down to Fernandina Beach, Florida, and loaded bulk phosphate into the hold for transport to Morocco. (How things change: thirty years later Morocco was a major exporter of phosphate fertilizer.) Somewhere along the way the ship picked up a Volkswagen and heavy boles of dark wood as deck cargo. We crossed the Atlantic, passing Bermuda and then Madeira, which looked far more glorious with the sun slanting through its hills than it looked thirty-some years later when my wife and son and I made port at Funchal on a cruise ship.
In Casablanca, I decided to get off. The crossing had taken sixteen days (divide that into $200!), and the coastal lights as we approached Africa seemed irresistible. Rubin worried about me as I signed in at the Hotel Foucauld, on what was known then as Rue Foucauld, since Arabized. The street commerce was mostly prostitutes, and it spilled in the front door as I was registering and a young dark woman borrowed the pen to scrawl “F” on my Spain and Morocco on $5 a Day paperback. (I still have the book.)
What I wanted to do in those days, and the only thing I wanted to do, was write. But there were problems. I had observed nothing, so I thought, and experienced nothing of interest, and therefor had nothing about which to write. So it seemed that every story I attempted had to be totally made up. Worse, I had none of the basic craft of writing fiction.
Casablanca wasn’t romantic, at least from the front door of the Hotel Foucauld. But three things I heard there, and one loathsome character I met, made it into a short story that was published in Hitchcock’s almost forty years later. And so, I’m happy to say, did the Jugolinija ship Tuhobic, bearing the corpse of a man who might have been a spy from Cuba.
December 13 2016
I only made it to Cuba once, in March 1978, and freelanced an article to Barron’s Financial Weekly on the island’s economy. It was a longish piece but needn’t have been—it could have been rather brief, in fact, because for practical purposes they didn’t have an economy. El elegido, as he was sometimes known, had a brainstorm years earlier that the future of Cuba lay in sugar production. And so it did. The problem for Cuba and her abused population was that the world market price for sugar subsequently collapsed, and the one-crop-economy decision was a disaster. By 1978 the Soviets were propping the place up with a convoluted deal that exchanged discounted Mexican oil for marked-up sugar, and El elegido was deploying his island’s excess labor to Africa to join a Soviet-supported war in Angola. I found the island’s people lovely, and if only they’d had a jubilee weekend and hanged every communist from a lamp post, a couple of generations of their children might have lived a different life. As it was, they were advised to believe in the Revolution, or at least not make a fuss about it if they didn’t. People can be happy, it seems, if they believe in something—just about anything—and not look closely at the array of choices their faith closes off, forever.
A handful of journalists and some businessmen spent a week at an old mob hotel, the Havana Riviera, which had been rechristened the Habana Libre. The swimming pool was scummy. The daily spreads were more luxurious than the locals ever saw. If you ventured into an American-style supermarket in Havana, the shelves were empty except for the first few feet, which were stocked with treasures including infant formula from the East Bloc. The businessmen met with the local empresa bosses, to be first in line if trade resumed with a country that had nothing to trade. Our Interior Ministry minders took us to the Martyrs of Kent School and the Lenin School. We met one minder’s pretty teenage daughter. I like to think she became a doctor and has had a good life over the last thirty-eight years. I hope she believed about politics everything they told her to believe.
Assessing Fidel Castro upon his passing, the West’s politicians have been largely agnostic. History will judge his revolution. So said Obama. So said Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Union. The anti-capitalist Pope promised prayers.
In the 1970s, the Isle of Pines was a prison. In Washington, El elegido’s pal Saul Landau, of the Institute for Policy Studies, bragged about making propaganda for American socialism. His colleague Orlando Letelier ran around town with East Bloc money buying influence for Soviet peace fronts, until a car bomb stopped him. From U.S. colleges, students snuck into Cuba to earn their progressive chops by helping with the sugar harvest, never wondering why they were cutting the least useful crop that could have been grown.
You could say, “So what?” Free societies have their sources of unhappiness: stress, unrealized ambition, personal disappointment. If you couldn’t find a volume of Friedrich Hayek on the island, the bosses had an explanation. As one petit commissar told the party organ Granma, the Revolution doesn’t have time for lies. In the more free world, we’re too busy to read Hayek anyway. “Dancing with the Stars” is on.
November 30 2016
The Buckley Gang
The photo is from a 1970 issue of National Review. The large-nosed young man on the far left, aged twenty-two, was being introduced by Wm. F. Buckley to others in the receiving line at the magazine’s fifteenth anniversary party at Tavern on the Green in New York. There must have been some code words that meant “scurrilous leftist squirt from the Boston Globe,” where I hoped but failed to place an article on whatever was going on in conservative circles. At the far right is Frank Meyer, about whom I wrote a few weeks ago. The lady next to Meyer is Priscilla Buckley, who was NR’s managing editor. Later she wrote String of Pearls, a charming memoir of her time in Paris as a reporter. It’s sobering to realize that of the people in that line (including James Burnham, whose elbow intrudes), I am the only one still upright. Nika Hazelton, who wrote a great deal about food, has her hand extended. William Rusher, NR’s publisher, stands beside her.
November 30 2016
Hitchcock’s Magazine Turns 60
The December issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine is landing in lucky subscribers’ mailboxes. Hard to believe, this is the 60th anniversary issue. Harder for me to believe that a few months ago marked the 40th anniversary of my first story’s appearance there. This time it’s “The Woman Who Sold Love Stories,” featuring my young Key West sleuth Meggie Trevor. A houseboat-dwelling friend has been bilking men over the Internet, and Meggie takes time off from waiting tables at a fish shack to track down a killer. If that doesn’t grab you, the issue has a story by a fellow who has been writing them even longer, Lawrence Block. There is so much good to be said for murder, if it’s done right.
November 12 2016
Ayaan Hirsi Ali
The theme of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s book Heretic is straightforward: Islam needs a reformation that brings critical thought to bear on its doctrines. She can never return to her family’s faith, she says. She is a rationalist, liberal nonbeliever. But she argues that Muslims who would like to reconcile their faith with life in the West might benefit from the opening of Islam to serious intellectual challenge. It’s a book worth reading for its optimism, which is probably misplaced.
The problem now is that to question is to be an apostate. To be an apostate, to doubt or insult the Prophet, is to deserve death. Her collaborator in the Netherlands, Theo van Gogh, was murdered by a Muslim fanatic who with a knife pinned a note to the dead man’s chest threatening Hirsi Ali. Now an American citizen, she travels with guards.
You would think such a writer would be adopted by the American left, which likes to imagine that its roots are in classical liberalism. You would be silly to think so. The Southern Poverty Law Center, attempting to play far above its class, has smeared Hirsi Ali in a new report this week as an anti-Islam extremist.
They’ve done it to others. Advocates of liberal markets are members of the “fringe.” A rationalist born in Somalia is an anti-Islam “extremist.”
A while ago Hirsi Ali said she would like to write a dialogue involving Mohammad and her three favorite western liberals: John Stuart Mill, Karl R. Popper, and Friederich Hayek. Fringe characters all, to today’s left.
October 27 2016
My Favorite Communist
I could get some work done, or I could reminisce. I met Frank Meyer only once, in 1970. I was moonlighting on the copy desk of the Boston Globe, and someone at the Globe’s magazine allowed that they would consider an article, maybe-perhaps, if I wanted to write one, on National Review’s fifteenth anniversary party. There may have been a mild frisson of horror in whichever editor I talked to. The Globe was as devoted to left illusions in 1970 as the Washington Post is today, with as much sense of humor about its faith.
I didn’t mind going down to New York at my own expense. The girl I’d had a hopeless crush on at The Times as a 20-year-old was married and long gone (to Paris, of course). The Tavern on the Green was the venue. William F. Buckley Jr., the NR founding editor, a religious conservative, was going to play Bach on the piano. I supposed I could survive both God and Bach for an evening.
I didn’t have much of a theme for an article. National Review turns 15 and . . . what? I knew nothing of the conservative movement, except that it might have descended in some manner from Edmund Burke (whom I hadn’t read) and maybe Chesterton (whom I hadn’t read) and Russell Kirk (whom I’d barely read); it disliked Ayn Rand (whom I had read), and it claimed social authority in some fashion from religion (which I disliked).
But as I talked to a few people that evening and the next day, the theme of traditionalism vs. libertarianism in the movement emerged. Bill Rusher, the magazine’s publisher, recommended that I speak with Frank Meyer, who sought a fusion between those ideological strands. Meyer invited me up to his home in Woodstock that evening. He was with his wife a friendly host, a spare, cheerfully intense man with dark-circled eyes and inexplicable tolerance for a twenty-two-year-old who barely knew a starting question to ask. I should say here that whatever I wrote didn’t make it into the Globe, but the taped interview with Meyer was published a few years later in a conservative magazine.
Among the things I didn’t know was that National Review had provided an intellectual home to ex-communists. There had been Whittaker Chambers, of course. But also Max Eastman (who sent John Reed to Russia and faced jail in WWI for counseling draft resistance). Eastman, a National Review senior editor, had died the year before. Senior editor James Burnham had been a Trotskyite. And there was Frank Meyer. He loaded me down with books, which I was too shy to ask him to sign: The Molding of Communists (about which he knew first hand), and In Defense of Freedom, which was his side of a disputation with Russell Kirk about authority vs. liberty in conservative thought.
If only I’d known the right question to ask, what an interview I could have had. I didn’t think much about this for many years. Eventually I read Michael Straight’s memoir After Long Silence. It’s a fascinating tale: a wealthy American whose mother floated The New Republic (and Martha Graham), who could seek guidance from Jock Whitney and Felix Frankfurter, whose Cambridge mentor was Lord Keynes, whose grumpy upstairs neighbor was Housman, who would have tea with Franklin and Eleanor at the White House. But, Straight recounts, he was a Soviet spy, recruited at Cambridge by Anthony Blunt. The memoir has a tone of candor, which some find suspect: was Straight’s spying for a Russian controller in his New Deal days really so minor and short-lived as he describes? That’s a topic for another time. The unexpected gem in his memoir, for me, was his portrait of a young, fierce, communist firebrand studying at the London School of Economics in the early 1930s, intense, hollow-eyed, compelling, such a troublemaker that the British finally booted him out of the country: Frank Meyer. Meyer’s background wasn’t a secret, except to green reporters like me. How I wish I’d known enough to ask him that evening to reminisce about himself in those days.
October 21 2016
A Moveable Feast
When our son was about twelve, maybe younger, I read him A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir of his time in Paris in the 1920s. It wasn’t so much Paris that I wanted to sell him on, though I promise now and then that if we get there I’ll show him Henry Miller’s favorite whorehouse. (That went over big with mama when he was twelve. I haven’t decided where the legendary place is, but I’m inclined toward the Street of the Cat That Fishes, if it has a plausible building. We’ll agree on something if we get there.)
The point of that reading, and much else, was to introduce a child to the pleasures of clarity of expression and thought. He was and remains an apt student. What brought the subject to mind was a conversation tonight about a book he was enjoying that has a somewhat staccato style. The talk strayed to Hemingway, whose style wasn’t staccato but was direct. So we took a look again at the openings of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” and both the opening and the cold, cold ending of “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” You can’t talk about a couple of these without mentioning Hollywood’s versions, especially of the last, which as I remember it turns the murder of a dull spouse into a last-minute love story between the survivors, because what else are you going to do with a corpse on the ground and a rifle in the widow’s hand; natural romantic material.
That led to A Moveable Feast, which I brought downstairs to revisit. What I overlooked years ago wasn’t the pleasures of clarity of expression and thought but the pleasure of pleasure itself. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by an American who said he hated Paris. So many of them, from Henry Miller and Waverly Root and I suppose Liebling (though I’ve forgotten most of his account) to later arrivals like Art Buchwald, ran into somebody who told them some version of “You should have been here twenty years ago, before they ruined it.” But in every case, they remember Paris as Hemingway did, as “always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”
Hemingway was writing of Paris almost a century ago. My wife and I first got there in 1984, and the Paris of A Moveable Feast was still imaginable. Sylvia Beach’s bookstore was there, sort of (a successor, but so what?). The famous cafés remained, to nick tourists. There were corners that looked like they hadn’t changed since Root witnessed art students carrying their naked models through the streets for some occasion or other. We went many times and wandered, found places we considered ours; never stayed more than a couple of weeks. And now suddenly it’s been just over twenty years. So I’ll read the books again.
October 20 2016
Long before J.G. Ballard became famous with his novel Empire of the Sun (with a boost from Spielberg), he wrote wonderful science fiction stories. All the ones I can think of were set on earth, but what a strange earth it is. This 1963 cover from Fantastic gives an evocative glimpse of one of his Vermillion Sands stories. His work is called Daliesque, but the jacket painting on the first edition of The Crystal World, his 1966 novel which I’ve begun rereading, is Max Ernst’s “Eye of Silence.” No matter. The novel opens with a disturbing upriver journey in Africa by a doctor from a leper hospital. The jungle looms overhead in silent threat, seeming to suck the light from the sky. At a market, he discovers an orchid that seems to be encased in crystal. His journey into darkness and light has barely begun. Ballard wrote about normal people, full of lust and fear and conflict, in a disturbed world. I only have to glance back at that cover of Fantastic to remember why I paid so little attention to what was going on in school.
August 31 2016
An Economist To Remember
Henry G. Manne, founder of the Law and Economics Center at George Mason University, died a year ago. He was 86. Most of our recent years’ visits to Florida had included lunch or dinner with Henry and his wife. The last time was two years ago. He was ill then, but still cheerful and analytical in considering the two alternative treatments that were available to him. There is a short wiki article on Manne that covers the basics but overlooks his enormous goodwill. Various memorial tributes note his influence in developing the theme of economics in law. But it was his 1966 book, Insider Trading and the Stock Market, that made him an icon at Barron’s Financial Weekly when I worked there in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Manne understood that the function of markets is to arrive at prices by processing information. Insiders possess more information than most market participants. Wasn’t it economic folly, then, to preclude them from acting on the information and thereby creating more efficient pricing? I never thought to ask Henry how he felt when a nominally free-market president, Ronald Reagan, considered bringing on Rudy Guiliani, a knee-capper, to head the SEC’s enforcement division. At Barron’s, the SEC was known as the Keystone Kops, at least on the editorial page presided over by Robert Bleiberg, who celebrated Henry Manne as a bringer of light to the economically benighted (who by and large insist on remaining in the dark). We met through a friend who passed away about a month before Henry. I may write a note about him another time.
January 25 2016
When the Kissing Had To Stop (1960)
Was Constantine Fitzgibbon famous before the publication of this novel? He’d written other books that were well-received. The reception of When the Kissing Had To Stop, especially when a television film was made in 1962, enabled him to refer to himself thereafter as a “fascist hyena,” citing one critic. The novel answers the question posed in Browning’s “A Toccata of Galuppi’s”: “As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop / Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop: / What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?” The setting is England. The novel is full of kissing, mostly adulterous, while in the background a neutralist government comes to power, throws out U.S. missiles, and invites the Soviets in to inspect. As a new order takes shape, characters rise or fall depending on their ruthlessness. The portrait of the policeman, Pendergast, who rises, is historically well-grounded. By the end, the survivor among the principals is the cuckold, now known as Captain Felix, resisting the Russian occupation from the mountains in Wales and dealing harshly with collaborators. The first line of the last chapter prompted a friend to imagine a copy editor taking exception: “Mr. Fitzgibbon, shouldn’t it read ‘quickly,’ because grammar demands an adverb here.” The line as published reads, “When the guillotine comes down, it comes down fast.” A grammarian might also take exception to a comma in the novel’s final line: “It was a wet autumn and cold winter, in England.” Fitzgibbon knew his craft, and his recent history.
January 17 2016
Suppose There Is Nothing
J.P. Morgan Chase, just to take an example not at all at random, is a very big bank, with a reported net worth of $245 billion. Naturally it leverages its capital, and its balance sheet is far bigger than its net worth. If you’re a patient reader of the company’s filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission and get to page 107 of the latest quarterly report, you can find numbers that dwarf everything else but do not appear on the balance sheet: the notional value of the bank’s derivatives book. At the latest filing, it’s $52 trillion (that’s with a T), about 212 times the corporation’s equity capital. I hadn’t looked for a while; if memory serves the total was around $70 trillion a year or two ago, and the latest report shows it was $63.7 trillion at the end of 2014. This weighs on the balance sheet hardly at all, roughly $1 trillion almost perfectly balanced between receivables and payables.
Now, so what? Maybe so nothing. These contracts are tied to things like interest rates, credit, this and that. If you assume the other guy pays when called on to do so (they didn’t always in 2008), you can show a very small “value at risk.” Suppose somebody doesn’t pay when called on? This was the speculation behind a new story of mine (James L. Ross’s, as it happens) in the January/February Hitchcock’s. It’s called “Suppose There Is Nothing.” When I wrote it, the total global derivatives book (concentrated particularly at Morgan and Deutschebank) was estimated at about $700 trillion, ten times the planet’s estimated annual GDP. The gimmick in the story is that a small Wall Street firm has figured out a way to make this business even more profitable, by not looking too hard at the risk.
December 5 2015
Thursday’s edition of The Sun in Baltimore carried an obituary for Roscoe C. Born, who died at 95. I hadn’t thought of him in years. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I worked at Barron’s, Roscoe was a Washington writer the magazine had inherited when Dow Jones closed down the National Journal. It’s hard to grasp that he was younger then than I am now, particularly as I viewed him as an aged gasbag trading on his better days. When his copy landed on my desk, he was a pain in the neck to edit; if he hadn’t asked a question, he couldn’t see why a copy editor should ask it. His Washington reporting was otherwise capable but could have appeared anywhere, lacking the liberal-market fervor that marked Barron’s. He had, I think, little interest in markets of any sort.
In any case, Roscoe came to mind this morning as I’ve been trying to avoid work, and his name brought to mind those of other Barron’s colleagues. Most of them are long gone. Jim Meagher, who had worked with Roscoe on the National Journal, died a few years ago in his eighties. We enjoyed talking because he had gotten his start at the Rock Island Argus, and we compared notes on whether that was a worse place to work than the neighboring Moline Dispatch.
The commodities writer, Dick Donnelly, keeled over one evening at home in his sixties. He’d had an ideal gig: four days a week of exchanging raunchy and memorably misogynistic jokes with commodity traders and one hurried afternoon pounding out his weekly column. Frank Campanella, who did the legwork on Alan Abelson’s iconic column (and was in his own right a sensible investor), died a few years ago. After I left the magazine my wife and I had a cheerful dinner with Frank and his wife at a French place in the forties and then went up to the Plaza for strawberries and cream and violins. Bob Bleiberg, the splendid editor (and probably the last editorialist in America to defend aluminum house wiring), died in 1997. Abelson went a year or two ago. Michael Brody, who wrote good free-market editorials but considered himself a Maoist, left Barron’s for Fortune, then left Fortune to grow grapes in California, and dropped like a shot bird one day when he was less than forty years old.
Googling around, I saw the glum news that the former foreign editor, Peter C. DuBois, died this March at age 80. Funny how things stick to you. Peter affected a slightly British manner, collected modern art, and called me “Bub.” Sometimes I call my son “Bub.” Peter Brimelow remains upright, author of books on stock market gurus and immigration. Jim Grant remains not only upright but six-five or thereabouts, thriving as editor of a Wall Street standby, Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, and author of biographies of Bernard Baruch and John Adams, among other books. No point to this note except recollection.
October 10 2015
From the Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
blog, February 2015
A Short Story Like Sausage
I envy writers who sit down in the morning, launch into a story with some idea of where it’s headed, and by lunchtime have 3,500 publishable words. When I say I envy them, that also implies I resent their efficiency. I’ve done it in their admirable way now and then. But most of the time my method is closer to making sausage in a dimly lit garage.
My story in the April 2015 Hitchcock’s, “Marley’s Lover,” is a case in point: bits from a failed literary story have been chopped free and stuffed into a mystery casing. I like both stories, as it happens, though both have weaknesses. In “Marley’s Lover,” I got to ridicule the connect-the-dots fallacy that produces “history,” I got to complain (as usual) about the damage inflicted on all of us by time, I got to brush alongside the question of why a number of American Communists became life-long traitors and, finally, I got to duck it by borrowing the words of the British spy Kim Philby on the matter of “staying the course.” There is an implication at the very end that my retired CIA case officer, Charles Marley, has been more a fool than usual.
The original story had neither Marley nor espionage. Entitled “Just Like That,” it imagines a man at a California resort meeting by chance a woman he had known decades earlier. (Marley does this, too, but not by chance.) “Just Like That” has no real plot. Its focal character lingers in a poolside chair long after dusk, when the air is cooling, and resists a suggestion he go inside because he fears that if he acknowledges the passage of the day the next thirty years’ worth of days will flit by “just like that”—as it seems the previous decades’ worth have done. It was an exercise in melancholy but not a well-built story.
I’ve done this many times. “Killing Morris Gimple,” from the June 2014 Hitchcock’s, drew its title character from a non-mystery called “I’m Not Enjoying This.” Here the seams may show, as the viewpoint shifts back and forth between Morris and the young female detective who is protecting him. (Readers are entitled sometimes to hate writers.) In “Out of Her Depth” (AHMM, December 2009), several pages of a novel that never got far provided the opening, in the third person, for a private-eye story told in the first person. (The first-person pages got written straight-through, just like one is supposed to do.) In “Marley’s Havana” (AHMM, March 2011), the opening scene at a Cuban nightclub was adapted from yet another novel fragment.
A reader, already muttering, might ask “Why?” There are usually two reasons. One, if there’s a theme I like, sometimes it’s possible to lift it from a form that hasn’t worked into the more structured form of a mystery story. Two, and more common, I often want to give a second chance to some fragment of remembered reality: an afternoon at a desert resort, several grumpy days on a Gulf Coast beach, an evening at a nightclub in Havana.
I don’t get much chance to talk to other writers. So I haven’t compared methods. But I wonder how many sausage-makers are out there.
From the Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine blog,
"Something Is Going To Happen," January 30, 2013
There’s a story that may be true—I’m not going to risk spoiling it by research—that the Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco built a splendid library on the second floor of his house. Eco didn’t take account of his books’ weight. Eventually an overburdened floor gave way, and part of the library relocated itself to Eco’s first floor.
I’m not sure when book hoarding becomes dangerous—or even when it becomes hoarding as opposed to casual accumulating or methodical collecting. It’s easier to tell these things with cats. When we had taken in five feral cats, my wife and I knew we were on the verge of slipping from eccentricity to pathology. We stopped inviting in strays and eventually turned to the more acceptable lunacy of raising a child. (People accumulate those, too, but now we have a high fence in the backyard that toddlers looking for a dish of milk can’t scale.)
It’s not so easy with books. The strays arrive by mail, for the most part. You’ve paid the postage, you might as well let the thing in for a while.
Of course, when to put it back out becomes the problem. The weather is never quite right.
As books pile up, they’re much less unsanitary than rooms full of cats or children. They don’t always smell good, but thousands of volumes of moldy paper don’t smell too much mustier than one or two. There are no busybodies, moreover, likely to call the police if they think you’ve taken in too many books. There is no SPCA eager to euthanize feral copies of Scaramouche.
But books complicate the domestic order.
In a compatible household, everyone would agree that a room needs bookshelves regardless of its nominal function. I remarked to my wife a while ago that if we covered over all the dining room windows with shelves, we could have a very nice library. A reasonable person would have seen the point: if we really needed a dining room, there were several available in neighbors’ houses.
Mrs. Boland usually gets the point, but our dining room still has its windows.
Several years of recent arrivals—I almost said litters, because they sometimes arrive in fives and eights—have gone into plastic bins for temporary storage. (Try that with a cat or a teenager.) This isn’t at all satisfactory, because part of the pleasure of having a houseful of books is that as you pass their shelves, the voices of the authors murmur. They’re not insistent. The invitation is gentle (though it may be salacious, depending who hides in the covers), and it’s always friendly: Could I tell you again about this crime I solved, or the one I committed, or what life is really like out around Proxima C. (Some voices are more pretentious, but in our house they’ve grown silent from neglect.) Shelf after shelf, all those voices offering endurance, duplicity, eight or nine deadly sins the patriarchs never thought of, Dorothy Parker’s snide couplets, Aubrey Menen’s arrival in Limbo, Ray Bradbury’s secretive dwarfs, Charles Finney’s surreal circuses, Geoffrey Household’s pagan adventurers, Eric Ambler’s accidental spies, P.M. Hubbard’s crazed glass collectors, John MacDonald’s humming psychopaths, the pages chipping, and you think, Whoa, was that really the whisper of Garland Roarke? Or Winston Graham? Or Erle Stanley Gardner. It’s been a while.
All this is by way of a literary confession. It may be that I’ve listened to too many of these voices too lovingly for too long. Max Allan Collins, known for hardboiled tales, said in an interview that Donald Westlake was the last writer to significantly influence him—and that was back in his University of Iowa days, more than forty years ago. Collins developed his own voice, and in the dozens of novels he’s written since then it carries clear and strong.
I could go through the handful of novels I’ve written and say, Now that one does sound a little like Dick Francis. The reviewers said so, and the influence was there—never mind that they could also have mentioned Andrew Garve or even Len Deighton, whom I read diligently for his depictions of bureaucratic politics and the sharp economy of violence.
When I wrote a series of financial mysteries in a sassier voice, I wondered: Where did that come from? I wanted to think myself. But I knew my smart-aleck stockbroker owed a lot to smart-aleck actors, antiques dealers and private eyes I’d met in other writers’ books.
I’m not sure I’d have it otherwise. Homage is a more self-exculpatory word than career-long theft. For a spy novel set in Budapest, I employed a gimmick I admired in Adam Hall, who throws his readers ahead into the next chapter without resolving what happened in the chapter just ended. (Hall, otherwise known as Elleston Trevor, has been dead a while and can’t complain that I did it badly.)
For a reader, there is old and new pleasure in those murmuring voices. As a writer I find endless instruction. Not everyone admires the highly prolific Stuart Woods, but there isn’t a page in his recent novels on which nothing happens. In Orchid Beach, his focal character seizes an opportunity to adopt a new career in about a page—something that would take most of us a chapter of agonizing, for the mistaken sake of verisimilitude.
If I wanted to understand the makings of a quietly disturbing voice, could I find a better teacher than Joel Townsley Rogers (of The Red Right Hand) or P.M. Hubbard, or —across the room in the science fiction department—J.G. Ballard or Philip K. Dick?
If I wanted to open a book without fuss or bother, but with the possibility of a cold finger on a reader’s neck, could I top Geoffrey Household’s The Courtesy of Death?, whose narrator tells us, “I had never thought of the cottage as lonely.”
If I wanted to see how a well-aged pro delivers an emotional jab unexpectedly at the end, I could heed the murmurs of John Updike and turn to “Grandparenting” as Richard Maple holds his new grandchild and realizes: “Nobody belongs to us, except in memory.”
At night I never dream of having more cats, and the No. 1 Son is so satisfactory that I don’t yearn for a second or third. But I dream recurrently of rooms that seem to head off in a circle, one after another, with dingy linoleum on the floors and stacks of metal shelves in the middle congested with books. Room after room. Make of it what you will.
So the books arrive and never leave the house. Hoarding is considered a psychological aberration. What about hoarding the pleasures of other people’s minds? I don’t know if this is discussed in the DSM, but I have a copy of that tome on order. So I will find out, if the floor doesn’t give way.
From Ed Gorman's Blog
[Ed Gorman invited me to write ashort piece for his blog about my novel Long Pig.]
My favorite line in Long Pig comes near the end: “If he couldn’t help anybody, at least he could fuck someone up once in a while.” Hayes has served his prison time over a Pentagon billing scandal. Now he’s done with the D.C. crowd. His daughter has hired him as an off-the-books investigator at her P.I. firm in Hollywood.
He’s got a scriptwriter lady friend who’s twenty years younger than him. He knows he’s an anachronism, knows all his points of reference are out of date, takes small comfort in the scriptwriter’s occasional reference to him as “Studkins”—suspecting she’s joking. This is the kind of character I like, because I’ve known people a little like him: over the hill, doubting that the past meant much. Hayes knows he can’t reform the Washington system. He knows he bought into a lot of b.s. as an army helicopter pilot. He had an epiphany in prison that his old beliefs were like water going down the shower stall drain. So then the complication: a political fixer back in D.C. thinks Hayes is leaking a damaging story about the war-hero President. Since it’s a story Hayes may have picked up from a gay sergeant who served with the President in Vietnam, this could be a little worse than a Swiftboat tale. The sergeant is conveniently deceased. Now the political fixer sets out to shut Hayes up.
What I liked to imagine was: How would a guy like Hayes, at this stage in his life, deal with people who believe he’s a pushover? I knew a guy more than twenty years ago who had been at the U.S. compound during Tet, and some of his background made its way into Hayes’s. Hollywood and D.C. people might be a little recognizable. I didn’t want to write a roman a clef, but I like stories that have at least shallow roots in things I’ve known. So they have life beyond the immediate needs of the plot.