Thursday, March 26, 2015


Attention, members of the media (and perhaps anyone else). Hillary is keeping a dossier on you. You are in deep trouble if you use certain forbidden words in connection with her.
What do you call a polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, entitled, overconfident, secretive politician who will do anything to win and thinks she's inevitable even though she's out of touch and represents the past?

Not "Hillary Clinton," because, you know, that would be sexist.

The list of verboten words and phrases above came in the form of an email warning to a New York Times reporter from "Super Volunteers" for Hillary Clinton.
Hillary, my dear future Empress, I would not dream of describing you as polarizing, calculating, disingenuous, insincere, ambitious, entitled, overconfident, and secretive. Far be it from me to commit, quote, coded sexism, unquote. Perish the thought!

But provided you approved the message from whatever brain-damaged Super Volunteers your enforcers rounded up -- and because you are brilliant and shrewd, I'm sure no such message would have been released into the aether without your sign-off -- I simply call you a fool.

Fools come in all sizes, shapes, and sexes. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Piero di Cosimo at the National Gallery

Piero di Cosimo's reputation as an Florentine Renaissance painter has suffered for the notion, going back as far as Vasari and as recently as a New Yorker article about the current exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Gallery, that he was a little touched in the head. Because of his eccentricity, he was not to be taken quite as seriously as the Great Names. But I left the exhibit feeling that there was much more to Piero than that.

Oh, his cup ran over with imagination at times, and the show leaves no doubt he had a sense of humor. The painting of Perseus rescuing Andromeda has been widely reproduced in media articles and the museum's own promotion. He obviously had fun with the mythical animal who served as Andromeda's prison guard. The curatorial commentary itself next to the picture aptly suggests the beast is more likely to inspire sympathy for the wacky creature than to scare the viewer.

And then there's the Madonna and Child -- as conventional a subject as any at the time it was put on canvas -- with one delightful detail: a dove with a halo. The Holy Ghost is usually shown as part of the Trinity, up in the sky above the biblical figures, or descending straight down from Heaven as if lowered on an invisible wire. This halo-crowned bird is just off in a corner of the picture. You can almost see the twinkle in Piero's eye as he added that touch.

The Finding of Vulcan on Lemnos. 
A larger version is shown in the New Yorker article,
 although the colors are curiously washed out 
compared with the original.

My favorite among the lighthearted paintings is a playful scene from mythology, in which the young Vulcan has just been tossed out of Mount Olympus by his parents, Jupiter and Juno. He has landed on the island of Lemnos, without a stitch of clothing, which seems pleasing to the flower-gathering nymphs who have found him. The nymphs show a nice bit of leg, and the one at the far right, dressed in the height of Renaissance finery, smiles charmingly with amusement and a touch of desire. There's a hole in the cloud where Vulcan tumbled through.

But the exhibit demonstrates that Piero was much more than a producer of jeux d'esprit. His able mind and hand were capable of richly colored, moving religious scenes.

Some of Piero's madonnas can be mentioned in the same breath as those of the great Giovanni Bellini. (For better or worse, Bellini's are mostly in Venice, which unfortunately I don't get to often.) The Venetian managed the impossible: showing Mary and Jesus, a look of unearthly beauty in Mary's face, and at the same time an infinite sadness. It is as if she knows the terrible death that will befall her son as well as, according to Christian doctrine, the end of death.

No, Pierro's works on the same theme (at least those shown at the Smithsonian) aren't as masterful as Bellini's, but in their own way are compellingly dramatic.

Piero seems to have understood what his miserableist contemporary, the monk Savonarola, did not: that joyous tones, a tickling wit, and sincere piety can coexist in love.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Burg

Fredericksburg, Virginia, is well known to historians -- academic and amateur -- of Lincoln's War. It's where I live now, after a long stretch in Falls Church, a District of Columbia suburb.

Moving to Fredericksburg has been like moving to a different country. (Locals usually shorten the town's name to "the Burg" or even "Burg" in speech, as they contract Spotsylvania County to "Spotsy." The early settlers had more time for multi-syllabic names than we do.)

A fairly small but historically and architecturally interesting historic district nudges the Rappahannock River (a name which, curiously, always seems to be fully pronounced, which is good, as the only likely short form would be "The Rap").

Contrary to what you might expect, only a few houses and churches predate the War. In its siege and occupation, the Union army tore up most of Fredericksburg. The wreckage inflicted by Sherman's army, still cursed by many southerners, at least was under orders and for a strategic purpose. In the Burg it was simply undisciplined looting.

The main battle, Marye's Heights (December 1862) was a deadly defeat for the Northern army and, at least in 20/20 hindsight, a spectacular example of foolish tactics on the part of the Union commander, General Burnside. But various other battles swept through the area for the next two years. One of them, Salem Church, took place a mile from where I live.

Fredericksburg looks like it quickly regained material prosperity after the War. The residential part of the historic district includes grand Victorian houses, many restored to fine condition. This is the area of the Burg I'd like to live in, but it must be priced well out of my range. I'm looking forward to giving myself a walking tour in the springtime.

The town suburbs of course now stretch way beyond the Burg's original dimensions, west past the Great Wall of Interstate 95 and far to the south. The houses of Spotsy County aren't ugly, but they're bland, variations on three or four basic styles. Huge shopping centers offer all the standard national chains, except Trader Joe's. We have driven to Richmond several times just to go to Joe's.

This is where the Old South begins. To the north are ugly Washington spillover districts and the Marine base at Quantico, plus a few dreary historic Dogpatches. Maybe I should say an island of the Old South, since from what I hear northerners have colonized coastal cities farther south such as Wilmington, North Carolina, and metropolitan Charleston.

The local accents are still remarkable to me, especially the musical Virginia Tidewater speech, unlike anything I heard around Washington.

Manners are important here. Everyday transactions tend to be preceded by, or include, a little chit-chat. I have never lived in a place where pleasantries and warmth are so much a common element of interaction. Even black-white relations seem relatively smooth, but that might be only on the surface.

My only intermittent psychic ability is perceiving the atmosphere of places. When we were looking at houses for rent, we must have been in at least a dozen. One was good enough by every objective standard, but it didn't feel right to me. It had been the site of something unpleasant -- not necessarily haunted or the scene of a murder, but something. Maybe just a very dysfunctional family.

It might sound natural that the Burg, with its gory past, would have dark and heavy vibes. I don't experience that. It's hard to describe, but rather than negative, the ambiance is, for want of a better word, serious. Not overtly -- people don't walk around frowning -- but in some subtle way, Longfellow's "life is real, life is earnest" applies.

There's a large drawback for me living in The Burg: it's a cultural desert. There's a good regional library, where my wife works, but no concerts with big-name talent, no theater, one chain bookstore, one secondhand bookstore in the back of a tourist shop, no CD exchange, no art museum, no metaphysical churches. The small local college, Mary Washington, has a jazz festival with student performers. The festival lasts one hour.

It's like being in Lesser Podunk, Arkansas. To get any sense of the larger world, you have to go to DC, Richmond, or beyond.

As the cliché has it, there's good and bad everywhere. But the proportions differ, and differ for each person. We'll see.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Crime scenes

There's a crime wave on television. Detective series are all the rage. Sometimes it seems they're cranked out like sausages, and inevitably they struggle -- or don't bother to -- against a load of clichés: The surly unsympathetic boss; the mismatched, hostile partners; the public and media baying for an arrest; the obvious suspect who turns out to be innocent (especially if said subject belongs to an ethnic or sexual minority); "What've we got here?" from the detective arriving at the murder scene; etc.

The viewer who has seen and heard it too many times is tempted to jack the whole genre, especially after such duds as George Gently and the hash made out of the novels based on Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus and Ruth Rendell's Inspector Wexford.

But a lot of us, obviously, are drawn to detective series. I confess, without even consulting a lawyer, that I am one. With each new program I nurse the hope for something special.

Broadchurch has been a big-time ratings success in the U.K., maybe the hottest show since Downton Abbey. It's available in the States via Netflix DVDs. Broadchurch is above the baseline, though not especially because of the script. Screenwriting is virtually a lost art, most of all in well-trodden fields like police dramas. But Britain has a seemingly bottomless store of acting talent to call on, and it's evident here.

The thing is set in a small seaside town in Dorset, in southwestern England. The odd-couple detectives are Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) and Alec Hardy (David Tennant); in the first episode we learn that Hardy, who has been transferred from outside the local cop shop, has taken the lead position Ellie was expecting. Thank goodness, though, the series doesn't make a meal out of her resentment or a conflict between the two -- for the most part, they work together smoothly despite various procedural disagreements.

Tennant speaks in a Scottish accent you need a pickax to get through (unless you're Scottish). He's a bear with a permanent sore paw, who looks like he sleeps in his suit (the tie always knotted below the top shirt button) and would still wear a scowl if he were being massaged with a peacock feather.

This actor is, I understand, the most recent Doctor Who. I don't watch Doctor Who, but my wife does, and she says he was excellent. Tennant makes a strong impression, more by his portrayed unpleasant temperament as any attempt to win the audience's favor.

But it's Olivia Colman who steals scene after scene. She appears to be wrapped up in her police work to hide, especially from herself, some deep sadness. Colman has the gift of being able to express several moods at once.

The supporting roles, especially the parents of the murdered young boy who is the subject of the investigation, ably hold up their end.

We are told that the series was shot in the sequence of the episodes, with the writer and director keeping the cast in the dark about who the guilty party was until the final revelation. Supposedly this was to keep them from unconsciously signaling anything to viewers in advance. That sounds like public relations bunk, to give the media something to write about. Actors of this caliber aren't going to drop any hints by mistake. Whatever, Broadchurch is well worth a look for fans of this kind of entertainment.

Let me tell you about something even better.

A while back I wrote about the British TV series based on Swedish writer Henning Mankell's inspector Wallander, with Kenneth Branagh in the lead role. Other than the compulsively watchable Branagh, I didn't find a great deal to cheer about.

There had also been two Swedish-made series centered on Wallander: The first, which ran between 1994 and 2007, starred Rolf Lassgärd. I don't think it's ever been available in the U.S. or U.K.

I was aware of a second Wallander production, first shown in 2005, but either Netflix hadn't distributed it yet or I was tired of the character and setting. Recently, though, when three seasons of the second series were offered on Netflix, curiosity drove me to check them out.

Wham. This production beats that with Branagh all hollow. For one thing, it pays attention to the rest of the cast in the investigations, not just Wallander. These are genuine ensemble pieces, not just settings for the central character.

The mood isn't exactly light -- these are murder investigations, after all -- but this Kurt Wallander doesn't wear a rain cloud for a hat like Branagh. He's troubled, but the troubles are not so much individual as  the kind that aging people have to contend with: health problems, upcoming retirement, isolation. The director keeps the tension up, without periodic interruptions for picture postcard countryside scenes.

And what a great choice for the Wallander role! Krister Henricksson amazes me every time I see him (I'm about halfway through the second season). No subtlety seems beyond him, but he can be thrillingly forceful when he needs to be. Watch the last 15 minutes or so of season two's opener, "The Revenge" (not that I'm suggesting you view it out of context) to see a top-class actor at work.

As with Broadchurch, the rest of the cast is firmly in charge of their part of the stories.

Netflix has dropped the ball, unfortunately. Before I could watch the whole first season, it took discs 5, 6, and 7 out of circulation or streaming. So you must miss about six episodes and then start with the second season, where one prominent cast member is missing and several new ones have appeared.

Johanna Sällström, who played (very well) the important role of Linda, Wallander's daughter and a uniformed policewoman in his outfit, committed suicide in real life. It's just incomprehensible. I am not against assisted suicide for the very old who have incurable illnesses and are in constant pain, but what could drive a beautiful young woman, who had already reached a high level of achievement in her profession, presumably had plenty of money, and was in good health, to peg out by her own choice? The human mind is an insoluble mystery. 

Anyway, Linda had to be written out of the script, but I would have liked to see how it was handled as well as to have the pleasure of watching Henricksson more. (Off topic: I am guessing that Swedish names by now are conventional, and that Krister Henricksson didn't have a father named Henrick.)

Netflix customers are now writing to complain that season three is only in Swedish, with no subtitles.

Whatever frustrations it entails, I can easily recommend this series.

It's not a detective story, but I'll mention the 2000 German production (with a strong Turkish component) In July. I found it so appealing I've seen it twice. The story is too lightweight to take time describing, but it's a romance balanced with just the right degree of tough-mindedness to temper the sweetness. There's something about astrological sun and moon signs that makes no sense to me, but adds a little metaphysical note to the mix.

The woman lead, Christiane Paul, is the world's most beautiful actress (or was in 2000), even with her corn-row hairstyle.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Industrious lunatics

It is almost impossible to parody the daily breaches of common sense that constitute our political life. I used to have fun in these pages lampooning the imbecility of governments and their enablers. Now they take the piss out of themselves with no need for outside assistance. Who needs a blogger to enjoy a laugh at the voluntary inmates at the asylum when the asylum is the corridors of power?

For months now, we have been told about the sickening atrocities committed by the Islamic State and various other excitable subgroups of the religion of the Prophet. Unless a new chapter has been opened today, the latest farce is Imam Obama's calling together a group of professional meeting-goers for something called The White House Summit to Counter Violent Extremism.

Since 2012, we've actually had an undersummit on the same theme (supported by the U.S. State Department and your tax money, headquartered in Abu Dhabi) -- the International Center for Excellence on Countering Violent Extremism. "Excellence" is a nice touch; remember the 1990s management fad of Excellence? Remember Total Quality Management (TQM)? ISO 9000?

We can perhaps expect the White House Summit to establish a new certification, CVE 45,000. CVE is combating violent extremism. What does the 45,000 mean? Who knows, but it sounds impressive.

The first award will go to a Green company, subsidized by the U.S. government, that turns Libyan sand into biofuel. Or says it will. That will aptly fulfill the suggestion of State Department Marie Harf that ultimately extremism must be counteracted by a jobs program, which would (for instance) recruit jihadis as heads of departments rather than head hunters.

As everybody has heard by now, the Sheikh of Washington has seen to it that the White House Conference on Violent Extremism tiptoes around any mention of the Islamic State and similar. Maybe they're not considered violent enough to win a Best Killing Oscar.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that "going mad is the slowest and dullest business in the world." He explained that it happens without anyone noticing that it's going on, especially the person going mad. Countries, too, can lose their minds with smooth-flowing efficiency.

"Madness is a passive as well as an active state: it is a paralysis, a refusal of the nerves to respond to the normal stimuli," Chesterton adds.
There are commonwealths, plainly to be distinguished here and there in history, which pass from prosperity to squalor, or from glory to insignificance, or from freedom to slavery, not only in silence, but with serenity. The face still smiles while the limbs, literally and loathsomely, are dropping from the body. These are peoples that have lost the power of astonishment at their own actions.
Take a look at that White House Summit logo again. In no particular order, as they form a circle, the "Solution" includes Engage, Mentor, Support, Communicate, Partner, and Educate. Just the stuff for community organization of bloodthirsty tribes. The symbolism is hard to make out, though. I get the little red schoolhouse for Educate, and the monitor for Communicate, but what is the house with a heart over the door meant to say about support? An Adopt-a-Soldier-of-Allah program? The weirdest of all is the symbol for Partner, which resembles if anything a filing cabinet.

Well, Imam Obama probably had a brainstorm for the White House Summit and wanted to announce it the next day. Some poor sod in the federal bureaucracy, normally occupied with devising wavy lines to indicate water and fish outlines to indicate fish in brochures for the Department of Wildlife, got the call to come up with a design for the Violent Extremism summit in the next eight hours. That didn't leave much time for refinement, or for imagination to set in.

When nations that have "lost the power of astonishment at their own actions," Chesterton says,
... give birth to a fantastic fashion or a foolish law, they do not start or stare at the monster they have brought forth. They have grown used to their own unreason; chaos is their cosmos; and the whirlwind is the breath of their nostrils. These nations are really in danger of going off their heads en masse; of becoming one vast vision of imbecility, with toppling cities and crazy country-sides, all dotted with industrious lunatics.
Come, let us unreason together.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

We're all Warren Buffett now

Every day brings more disasters and threats, actual and potential. I have no cure to suggest. (I know you were counting on me; sorry about that.) So let me take up a subject many of us are familiar with: money.

That's the neat thing about this topic: it's easy to relate to. And, it seems, easy to advise about. Amid winter's gloom (if you're anywhere north of Florida or Scottsdale), it's natural to dream of turning a dolor into into a dollar. And there is no shortage of blogs and web sites, not to mention financial publications -- all right, so I just did mention them -- to plant a word to the wise in your brain. We're all Warren Buffett now, just waiting our turn to say the magic word that will make the duck with the cigar drop in. (For those of you under 50 or outside the U.S., that was a running gag on Groucho Marx's TV quiz show many a year ago.)

The heck of it is, while some of the advice is mainly self-promotion, a lot of it is valid, at least if you accept its premises.

If these pundits are so smart, why aren't we rich? (No offense meant if you are rich.)

Part of the trouble is that so much of what they say is reasonable, but impracticable. Let's take as an example a post from Clear Eyes Investing, headed "5 Ways to Avoid Permanent Losses." The writer, Todd Wenning, CFA, is an equity analyst currently with Morningstar.

He first makes clear what is meant by a permanent loss.
... A permanent loss of capital differs from a temporary loss of capital that's due to market volatility and it occurs when an investment's value has declined so much that getting back to break-even within a few years is unlikely. Effectively, an unrecoverable loss.
As most people who've been in the investment game for a while know, a loss of x percent means you will have to make more than x percent just to return to where the dip began. For instance, as Wenning shows in a table, if you own a stock that sinks 30 percent, you can tell yourself it's only a "paper loss," but for you to be made whole the stock must climb 43 percent. Possible, but the odds are against it. Even if it does recover 43 percent or more, chances are it won't happen quickly.

I won't paraphrase his five ways of avoiding permanent losses; please just click the link and read them for yourself. In principle, they all sound sensible. So what's the problem?

Mostly they are procedures that only a professional financial analyst could love. They are enough to make us amateurs run screaming from the room. Let's take one as an example:
4. Focus on trends in competitive advantages. The market has become incredibly focused on the short-term. For example, the average stock mutual fund turnover rate have [he means has] jumped from an average of 17% between 1945 and 1965 (implying an average holding period of about five years) closer to 100% today (implying an average holding period of about one year). Naturally, then, market participants seek short-term information advantages -- e.g. "Will this company beat next quarter's consensus estimates?" -- at the expense of gathering helpful long-term information. ...

Spend more time in your research process thinking about where this company might be three- to five-years from now. A simple way to get started is with a "SWOT" analysis -- listing the company's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Then ask how the company might enhance its current strengths, reduce its weaknesses, capitalize on opportunities, and respond to competitive threats. 
Who can say aught against long-term thinking? With all respect to Wenning, who is undoubtedly far more sophisticated than I am about security analysis, I don't believe anyone (especially outside the company being analyzed) can acquire more than a general idea of its "strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats."

Still less relevant is how the company "might" enhance its current strengths, reduce its weaknesses, capitalize on opportunities, and respond to competitive threats. Even if anyone could divine how the company might do all those things, it's anyone's guess whether it will. 

And say the company looks from here to be on the right track. Think of all the things that could cause it to pack up in the next three to five years: technological changes, a smart new competitor arriving like a lightning bolt from a blue sky, a change of management, a law suit, a huge increase in the cost of raw materials, international crisis ... and on and on. All possible, none predictable.

Short-term trading gets a bad name in the financial media commentariat. We're all supposed to assure ourselves with deep research before we splash out on a stock, and then stay the course. Warren Buffett groupies like to quote him: "My favorite holding period is forever." Well, Mr. Buffett can lose a few million dollars and not bother to look for it under the sofa cushions. Others aren't so blasé about parting with money on a mistaken buy, especially if it's a permanent loss.

Maybe at least some of those short-term thinkers aren't so dumb after all.

Me, I do trades now and again, but mainly I've come to (a) avoid individual stocks and (b) hedge by allocating my modest stash among exchange-traded funds. That doesn't guarantee I won't lose on any of them, but asset classes as a whole are more likely to recover than single companies that go haywire. And it takes a lot less time than trying to figure out the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of particular names. Time is an asset class, too.