Boswell’s Life of Johnson

Finally read this one, and it’s a lot of fun! Well, by read I mean skimmed, there are a lot of details of dinners and discussions of particular plays of the period that didn’t hold my attention. Still, sift through the slag and there’s many a jewel here. Boswell was a young lawyer from Scotland when he met Johnson (Johnson never misses a chance to roast Scotland). He reconstructed the life of Johnson previous to meeting him, and then picks up, more or less writing down any witty or interesting things Johnson had to say, which were many.

On Johnson’s college years:

Dr Adams told me that Johnson, while he was at Pembroke College, ‘was caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicksome fellow, and passed there the happiest part of his life.”  But this is a striking proof of the fallacy of appearances, and how little any of us know of the real interna state eveon of those whom we see most frequently; for the truth is, that he was then depressed by poverty, and irritated by disease.  When I mentioned to him this acocunt as given me by Dr Adams, he said, “Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent.  I twas bitterness which they mistook for frolick.  I was miserably poor, and I thought to fight my way by my literature and my wit; so I disregarded all power and all authority.”  

Johnson recounts to Boswell what happened on the way to his wedding:

Sir, she had read the old romances, and had got into her hear head the fantastical notion that a woman of spirit should use her lover like a dog.  So, Sir, at first she told me that I rode too fast, and she could not keep up with me; and, when I rode a little slower, she passed me, and complained that I lagged behind.  I was not to be made the slave of caprice; and I resolved to begin as I meant to end.  I therefore pushed on briskly, till I was fairly out of her sight.  The road lay between two hedges, so I was sure she could not miss it and I contrived that she should soon come up with me.  When she did, I observed her to be in tears.

Despite this, it appears to have been a happy, if short marriage. Johnson’s was a love marriage to a woman significantly older than him. On marriage in general Johnson muses:

I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter.  

When Boswell met Johnson, he was a widower, who’s often with his friends the Thrales or other people who take him in for his charm. For his dictionary Johnson got paid 1575 pounds, and “when the expense of amanuenses and paper and other articles are deducted, his clear profit was very inconsiderable.” As for money:

He frequently gave all the silver in his pocket to the poor, who watched him, between his house and the tavern where he dined.  He walked the streets at all hours, and said he was never robbed, for the rogues knew he had little money, nor had the appearance of having much.

I liked this:

In 1761 Johnson appears to have done little. 

Johnson has much advice about drinking and melancholy:

Against melancholy he recommended constant occupation of mind, a great deal of exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, and especially to shun drinking at night.  He said melancholy people were apt to fly to intemperance for relief, but that it sunk them much deeper in misery.  He observed, that labouring men who work hard, and live sparingly, are seldom or never troubled with low spirits.    

I heard him once give a very judicious practical advice upon this subject: “A man, who has been drinking wine at all freely, should never go into a new company.  With those who have partaken of wine with him, he may be pretty well in unison; but he will probably be offensive, or appear ridiculous, to other people.”

Boswell goes with Johnson to his hometown, Lichfield, and observes not much work going on:

“Surely, Sir, (said I,) you are an idle set of people.’  Sir, (said Johnson,) we are a city of philosophers: we work with our heads, and make the boobies of Birmingham work for us with their hands.”

Johnson chastises Boswell for using the phrase “to make money.” 

Don’t you see (said he,) the impropriety of it?  To make money is to coin it : you should say get money.  

I feel like rappers are on to this one. On fame:

Talking of fame, for which there is so great a desire, I observed how little there is of it in reality, compared with the other objects of human attention.  “Let every man recollect, and he will be sensible how small a part of his time is employed in talking or thinking of Shakespeare, Voltaire, or any of the most celebrated men that have ever lived, or are now supposed to occupy the attention and admiration of the world.  Let this be extracted and compressed: into what a narrow space will it go!

War:

We talked of war.  JOHNSON: Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.  BOSWELL: Lord Mansfield does not.  JOHNSON:  Sir, if Lord Mansfield were in a company of General Officers and Admirals who have been in service, he would shrink; he’d wish to creep under the table.  Were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, “Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;” and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, “Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;” a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.  Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.

(I feel this is often misquoted, leaving out the “having been at sea” part, and the part about Socrates vs. Charles The Twelfth. Of course, if Socrates was in the Peloponnesian Wars like Plato claims, he could handle both).

Travel:

He talked with an uncommon animation of travelling into distant countries; that the mind was enlarged by it, and that an acquisition of dignity of character was derived from it.  He expressed a particular enthusiasm with respect to visiting the wall of China.  I catched it for the moment, and said I really believed I should go and see the wall of China had I not children, of whom it was my duty to take care.  “Sir, (said he,) by doing so, you would do what would be of importance in raising your children to eminence.  There would be a lustre reflected upon them from your spirit and curiosity.  They would be at all times regarded as the children of a man who had gone to view the wall of China.  I am serious, Sir.  

Johnson was not a fan of America:

From this pleasing subject [Jesus] he, I know not how or why, made a sudden transition to one upon which he was a violent aggressor; for he said, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American: and his inflammable corruption bursting into horrid fire, he breathed out threatenings and slaughter, calling them, Rascals – Robbers – Pirates; and exclaiming, he’d burn and destroy them.  

Later, Boswell tries to put this in context:

Notwithstanding occasional explosions of violence, we were all delighted upon the whole with Johnson.  I compared him at this time to a warm West-Indian climate, where you have a bright sun, quick vegetation, luxuriant foliage, luscious fruits; but where the same heat sometimes produces thunder, lightning, earthquakes, in a terrible degree.

How about:

Depend upon it, said he, that if a man talks of his misfortunes, there is something in them that is not disagreeable to him; for where there is nothing but pure misery, there never is any recourse to the mention of it.  

Medicine:

On Sunday, March 23, I breakfasted with Dr. Johnson, who seemed much relieved, having taken opium the night before.  He however protested against it, as a remedy that should be given with the utmost reluctance, and only in extreme necessity.  

The idea comes up a few times that Johnson might be considered something of an underachiever, or at least that his position in the world doesn’t match his brilliance:

Mrs Desmoulins made tea; and she and I talked before him upon a topic which he had once borne patiently from me when we were by ourselves – his not complaining of the world, because he was not called to some great office, nor had attained great wealth.  He flew into a violent passion, I confess with some justice, and commanded us to have done.  Nobody (said he) has a right to talk in this manner, to bring before a man his own character, and the events of his life, when he does not choose it should be done.  I never have sought the world; the world was not to seek me.  It is rather wonderful that so much has been done for me.  All the complaints which are made of the world are unjust.  I never knew a man of merit neglected; it was generally by his own fault that he failed of success.  A man may hide his head in a hole: he may go into the country, and publish a book now and then, which nobody readys, and then complain he is neglected.  There is no reason why any person should exert himself for a man who has written a good book: he has not written it for any individual.  I may as well make a present to the postman who brings me a letter.  

A zinger on Adam Smith:

I once reminded him that when Dr Adam Smith was expatiating on the beauty of Glasgow, he had cut him short by saying, “Pray, Sir, Have you seen Brentford?”  and I took the liberty to add, “My dear Sir, surely that was shocking,”  “Why then, Sir (he replied,) YOU have not seen Brentford.” 

Animals:

I shall never forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters

(Boswell doesn’t really like Hodge, but tolerates him)

Mrs Thrale, while supping very heartily upon larks, laid down her knife and fork, and abruptly exclaimed, “O, my dear Mr Johnson, do you know what has happened?  The last letters from abroad have brought us an account that our poor cousin’s head was taken off by a cannon-ball.”  Johnson, who was shocked both at the fact, and her light unfeeling manner of mentioning it, replied, “Madam, it would give you very little concern if all your relations were spitted like those larks, and drest for Presto’s supper.”

(Presto being a dog who was present). 

One of Johnson’s good buds was the painter Joshua Reynolds.


Marines vs ravens

from the Hi-Desert Star, Nov 18, 2021:

Members of the public have been invited to comment on an environmental assessment of plans to kill thousands of ravens at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center and five other military installations in the California desert.

The assessment, examines two alternative plans, the first calling for a continued use of primarily non-lethal raven management actions, including flushing of individuals, increasing levels of stress and disrupting of nesting opportunities.

That’s the first plan, stress out the ravens. The second plan?

The second calls for the lethal removal of 11,830 to 13,293 ravens initially and 1,477 to 1,715 ravens annually.

The reasoning?

“The overpopulation of ravens in both the built and undeveloped areas of the California desert has had several detrimental impacts on the DoD installations within the region,” the report states.

“For instance, increased raven numbers result in higher incidences of predation on juvenile desert tortoises. The desert tortoise is the only federally listed species that occurs within the boundaries of all six DoD installations in the California desert, and the DoD is legally obligated by federal law to ensure the species is protected.

“Ravens are also causing property damage and pose a human health hazard in the built environment, particularly in and around areas where vehicles and aircraft are parked and where DoD personnel must work directly underneath high-use roosting sites.”

I’d be careful here, ravens are pretty smart. The crow can be a nuisance bird for sure (although also said to be quite smart) but the raven I would be hesitant to mess with. They have powers.


Down with the brioche bun!

Longtime readers will know I don’t like to get political on this site, but sometimes you’ve just got to speak up: I’ve HAD it with the brioche buns every upscale restaurant is using for their burgers! I’m eating a freakin’ cheeseburger, I don’t need it served between two pieces of cake! Just give me like a chill old regular bun, such as any successful fast food franchise might use.

Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to go on an angry rant here. But it’s an aspect of society’s decadence where I must take a stand. I expect to get quite a few letters on this – you know where to find me!

From brioche Wikipedia:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his autobiography Confessions, relates that “a great princess” is said to have advised, with regard to peasants who had no bread, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche“, commonly translated as “Let them eat cake”. This saying is commonly misattributed to Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI.


Europe relative to USA

Cheers to whoever it was on Twitter that put me on to Scale-A-Tron, latest map overlay tech. My post on how big UK/Ireland are compared to California is one of my most popular.

Here’s some fun with California:

A good comp for Italy, in climate as well as size.

Compared to Korea:

Good reminder on how vast Australia is:

A fellow I met in Brisbane once shook his head about foolish tourist who thought he could drive to Cairns in one day.

Chile:

Namibia:

The US Midwest:

In Best and The Brightest, David Halberstam reports that General Max Taylor introduced a note of ice cold realism by presenting a map of Cuba overlaid over the United States, shaking the stupid assumption that this was a rinkydink little island, invasion of which would be a minor matter:

Maybe they should’ve done this one:

Or:


Out and about

Ships waiting to dock at Port of LA – Long Beach, seen from Seal Beach. The whole world is backed up! Seal Beach is an interesting town. Most of the acreage is used to store ammunition for the US Navy, and yet there’s a Whole Foods and a Peloton store. On Electric Avenue you can see what remains of the old streetcar route. It could’ve looked like New Orleans down there. Maybe the vastness of LA could never have supported the length of streetcar routes required, but you can’t help but mourn.

After viewing the vessels, we went for pho at Pho 79 in Little Saigon. Fantastic, cheap, a great richness of flavor, although was it really more than 20% better than my local pho place? Still, some people live for that 20%.

Las Vegas remains itself. Mask enforcement in casinos is diligent, to my surprise. Back in May it was a maskless wilderness, but Delta seems to have put the fear out there. We were present in the Bellagio sportsbook for one of the more wrenching communal emotions you can feel in a sportsbook, when a team (the Chicago Bears, in this case) covers the spread (against Pittsburgh) but fails to win. Thus Pittsburgh fans/bettors disappointed, Bears fans disappointed and bettors mildly satisfied? A mingling of disappointment and emotional anticlimax, felt in the air.

At least one occasion of dudes attempting to start the “Let’s Go Brandon” chant in the bathroom. Permission to be obnoxious was always an appeal of Las Vegas I suppose, but it does seem like obnoxiousness in general is on the rise.

It was a great pleasure to attend the Pro Bull Riding World Finals. I was not bored! Brave dudes: the safety team/ bullfighters who lure away the bull after the rider is thrown. I had the opportunity to ask one of these dudes what I should do in the event I had to fill in for him: “don’t run in straight lines. Four legs is gonna outrun two.” Sometimes these guys have to cut out a cowboy who’s caught under a rope. Doing knifework on a bucking bull, not an easy job. They’re brave like the banderilleros in a traditional Spanish bullfight, who also don’t get enough credit.

So far as I could tell, despite rumors of testicle electrocuting, no real harm is done to the bulls. It’s the humans who are getting damaged. Eli Vastbinder won the final round despite a dislocated shoulder and several broken ribs.

Human/bull sport has a long history, I was reminded of the bull leapers depicted in the Great Palace of Knossos, 1450 or so BCE.

source


Two Ports

I was checking on some ships and saw them traveling through the ship channel in Port Sulfur, Louisiana.

The town is 8 feet (2.4 m) above sea level and had not flooded during Hurricane Betsy nor Hurricane Camille. Before Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita about 3,000 people lived in Port Sulphur. Nevertheless, during Hurricane Katrina, the federal levees failed and around 22 feet (6.7 m) of water engulfed the town. Almost all single-family homes in the town were destroyed, many of which were moved off their foundations by as much as 100 feet. In the months following Katrina, some residents moved back to Port Sulphur in trailers and modular homes provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But many residents relocated to other parts of Louisiana, the Southeast, and Texas.

The New York Times has been all over the case of the precarious communities of Plaquemines Parish. I’d like to visit sometime. Would I feel weird staying at Woodland Plantation? Yes, but I’m prepared to do it in my role as a journalist.

Here’s the Subway in Port Sulphur. Get a sandwich and sit on that levee watching the ships go by?

A port closer to home, Port Hueneme, came up in some recent discussion of the huge backup at Port of Los Angeles / Long Beach.

I learn that 3.3 billion bananas come through Port Hueneme each year. One of these days I’m gonna go up there and get a banana right off the boat.


The burners

Fire at the Grand Storehouse of the Tower of London 1841 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D27846

What if our purpose, humanity’s purpose, is to burn up the Earth? To take all the burnable materials and burn them up, fast as we can, and reduce the planet to ash, or to a hot burning volcanic rock with a carbon-filled atmosphere, like Venus?

The surface of Venus from Venera 10. source

If you took a step back, looked at all the species on Earth, and tried to conclude what the function of our species, in particular, could be, you might conclude we are the burners. We’re the only species that uses fire. We’ve been using it for let’s say 1.5 mill – 100,000 years. A blip in geological time. We’ve gotten amazing at it, astonishingly advanced, to the point that we can bend fire to our will, dredge up ancient organic matter and refine it and put it to light. We can even invert the heating power of fire. When we want to cool ourselves, we turn a dial that sends signals that leads to the burning of coal, oil, gas. In our dim conscious minds we may be thinking “we’re making ourselves comfortable,” but perhaps on a deeper level we’re fulfilling our galactic mission to burn up planet Earth. Most of us only rarely deal with fire fire, outside of the occasional campfire or fireplace fire (which by the way we are drawn to and love). We don’t even need to. We’ve gotten so good at fire that every house has a refrigerator in it that works from something, somewhere, down the wires and at the end of the pipelines, burning.

Maybe burning is our function, the way the carrying away of dead matter is a function of ants.

What if the use and control of fire goes together with consciousness? As soon as a species becomes conscious, anywhere in the universe, they turn to the passion of burning. Quickly (within a few million years or so) they extinguish themselves and their planet and return it to glowing gas, rock, and dust? From a consciousness perspective, this seems sad, because everything we care about, our history, our arts, it’ll all be “extinguished” (to use a word that resonates with our burner culture, signifying loss). But we already know on a long enough scale it’s all temporary.

What if the light of consciousness is meant to burn hot and then extinguish itself, as stars do in their own time?

Couldn’t that be kind of beautiful? Sure, in the late stages of speciatic consciousness maybe we’d come to contemplate this end, even worry about it or attempt to wish it away. But perhaps after that stage, then we’ll reach a kind of smiling acceptance. In this scenario, all the fuss about climate change and so on is just the panic of an anxious toddler learning about death for the first time. It’s natural to be upset, but we need to progress through it and get back to burning up the Earth as quickly as possible.

Perhaps then Exxon executives, wildcatting frackers, really all of us as consumers and burners, are spiritually whole, leading purpose-driven lives that will lead soon to our ultimate fulfillment, if we can just accept that’s what we’re doing. The more we’re burning and consuming, the better. That’s why we keep doing it, even if neurotically we scream to ourselves that we have to do something about it.

Maybe traveling some rotten stretch of interstate you spy blackened stacks, raveling smoke, and wonder, What’s burning? We ought to ask the same each time we step into a comfortably warmed or cooled room, each time we click on a reading lamp or plug in a phone.

writes Joe Wilkins in a thoughtful essay in High Country News. More or less every article in that publication these days is about burning: natural gas drilling, abandoned oil wells, literal fires, or the first, second, third order effects of burning: changing rivers, drying forests, altered farming patterns. But maybe the fire we fear as demonic is calling to us for a reason.


San Luis Obispo

A couple years had passed since I’d last taken the train up to SLO. The town appears to be prospering. The Thursday night farmers market and Halloween festivities were full of happy faces, the farm produce looked amazing, the grilled meats smelled good. There are multiple stores that sell like soaps and globes and mugs and scarves. And places called like

The creek runs right through town. A fantasy would be to open a Japanese style inn alongside it, in about 300 years you might have a decent ryokan. Kids were on campus at Cal Poly, they looked healthy and vital. School pride there feels abundant, and it’s my sense that the learning there is practical and focused. Is the more famous Cal Poly alum Ozzie Smith or Weird Al Yankovich?

The Central Coast cadence of chill can be overheard everywhere, over pale ale and pinball at Lincoln Market for sure. Del Monte Cafe, La Loconda, Big Sky Cafe, Mistura all make my list. Dr Burnsteins Ice Cream Lab unfortunately somewhat disappoints. The “lab” theme is simply not maniacal enough.

Several California towns I’ve visited in the last year have a hollowed out feel, the main streets shells, but San Luis Obispo feels alive. I’ve never failed to feel good after a journey there. A small house in town will run you $600k at least, and there are not many available. In previous October visits the weather’s been brisk, but this time the air was quite toasty. Three or four visits over a few years is not a fair sample size, so I wouldn’t consider this science, but I feel the climate is changing.

Bought these at Phoenix Books, where I’ve never failed to score:

The Garden Street Inn has been taken over by Hilton, but not to worry, it’s still weird and the staff are still friendly and the rooms retain their individual themes (not on Madonna Inn level, just small touches).

Any traveler on Amtrak should expect a two hour or so delay somewhere along the line, and at least one semi deranged fellow passenger, but the Coast Starlight still can’t be beat for oceanside leisure travel. For lunch I had a baked potato with vegan chili, cheese, and half a bottle of Dark Harvest cab, tell me where you can have a better lunch at 50 mph.

WNBA should return to this fit

The mission in SLO is one of the more inviting California missions in its architecture, in my opinion. The town was named for St. Louis of Toulouse. Three hundred years after, the mission of converting California to Catholicism must be declared a failed project but the lingering relics of the medieval Spanish priests are significant and still impress.

“The solidity of justice,” my dad commented on my photos of the county courthouse.


Culture notes

  • I didn’t think Dave Chappelle’s most recent special, The Closer, was his best, although there were some funny jokes in it (on JK Rowling: “this woman sold so many books The Bible got nervous”). The tone was off, or something. Dave Chappelle is a contender for GOAT standup comedian, and also man who’s made impressive choices with significant amounts of money on the line. But I like observing that myself; when he reminds me of these things multiple times in his own special, I find it diminishes the value, akin Matthew 6:2 or the kidney donation lady.

I was texting a friend who had not seen it about the special, and he wrote me something like “what is the obsession with trans people? Why doesn’t he just stop?” In a way the special is Chappelle’s answer to this question, with the conclusion “maybe I will just stop.” If you watch the special, you will see Dave himself describe the feeling of being attacked, harassed, and threatened, which is the same feeling his most extreme critics point to as a reason for being careful about material like this.

Language as spell, as magic, words as having power to cause real harm and violence, to even be violence in themselves, is a belief that is growing over my lifetime. Could that have something to do with a blending of what were once more isolated dialects into a great shared language that incorporates more people, with more divergent opinions and backgrounds? The way English was forming around Shakespeare’s time from like Kentish and Pictish and East Anglian and whatever, blended with Norman French and pieces of Gaelic and Latin all the rest? Such an expansion will not be without confusion.

In 2016 I remember going to the source of a news item that was inspiring controversy, a Department of Education memo on Transgender Students. Here is the Notice of Language Assistance that prefaces the letter:

We’re already in a language mess and we’re not even on page one. I’m not used to reading federal Department of Education documents, I assume this is kind of boilerplate, and well-intentioned. Page 1 of the letter is an attempt to clarify terminology:

An important part of the issue is getting the language right, which will not be easy, language being notoriously tricky and fluid. But if language has the violent power we imbue to it, getting it wrong is very dangerous, like miscasting a spell!

(source)

  • Sun & Sea at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA was great! An immersive exhibit / opera? I visit Lithuanian Wikipedia to learn about the creators, Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Graintė, Lina Lapelytė,

I was pleased with my burger from Burger She Wrote, although I don’t understand the pun. It’s not like the place is Jessica Fletcher themed or anything. Is it a play on how all burgers are murder?


Politics, Oct 2021

  • On Youngkin and Trump: “You can’t run ads telling me you’re a regular ol’ hoops-playing, dish-washing, fleece-wearing guy, but quietly cultivate support from those who seek to tear down our democracy.” 

Uh, you absolutely can, it’s the entire playbook. Whether you should is another question, but I don’t even think you can argue it doesn’t work.

  • On fatigue among Dems: “I know a lot of people are tired of politics right now. We don’t have time to be tired. What is required is sustained effort.”

I don’t think “sustained effort from you!” is a winning message for a political campaign. Often I spot sustained effort from my elected officials, but I don’t know what the effort is towards? Most often it seems towards “not doing anything that would upset existing power structures but while avoiding the appearance of giving up, while also fundraising,” which must be exhausting indeed, and is no doubt effortful, but is not effective at improving outcomes.

Anyway, that was former President Barack Obama yesterday in the Virginia governors race, where Terry McAuliffe, a guy who was a Democratic party functionary for like 30 years, who was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, and already was governor of Virginia, is running on a program of… change? Keep doing the same stuff? The alternative is worse? Seems like the third, but I haven’t been on the ground in Virginia for a couple years.

Any Virginians with takes please weigh in.


Miles Davis

from the American Masters doc Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool


Kansas

Fragments sad, frightening, and warm in this story “In Trying Times, a Kansas Community Faced Down Its Fear of Outsiders,” by Michael M. Phillips and Dante Chinni for Wall Street Journal. It began when a woman with Colorado plates showed up and tried to buy all the town’s toilet paper. Concerned residents, worried about just who could come up I-70, formed a protection group.

Worried about its image, the group went public early this year, posting a mission statement at the Dairy Queen, feed stores and the Pit Stop gas station.

“Gove County Emergency Response Group works to help maintain peace in Gove County,” the flier said. “By educating citizens in our area of preparedness and self-defense; inviting citizens of all backgrounds and races to stand unified against lawlessness in times of disaster and civil unrest; and building strong relationships with law enforcement through cooperative community efforts.”

Concerns:

A group of women who jokingly called themselves the Enlightened Ladies Club caught wind and were suspicious. They leaned liberal for the most part in conservative Gove County and sometimes dined together to share views. “We were anticipating some sort of vigilante group,” said Patrice Ostmeyer, who works part time at the public library.

Something Rockwellian in this photo by Christopher Smith:

Some real excellence in some of these text-image-scrolling blends that the NYT, WSJ, and Bloomberg in particular seem to have mastered.


Colin Powell

I forget if I found this story on my own in Powell’s memoir My American Life, or if it was called to my attention:

in any case it stuck with me. How about this, from an Atlantic interview, 2004, with PJ O’Rourke:

SECRETARY POWELL: I knew Elvis.

P. J. O’ROURKE: Really?

SECRETARY POWELL: I met him when he was in the Army. I was a lieutenant; he was a sergeant.He was in the neighboring regiment—or combat command, as we called it—in the Third Armored Division in Germany.We were in the training area one day and I was driving my jeep around and suddenly came upon this unit from the other outfit and there he was. And so I went over and shook hands.He was a good soldier. You never would have thought he was anything but a soldier. He had a pimple on his face and everything else. He was not a big star. He was just another soldier.

P. J. O’ROURKE: I’ll be darned. Well, good for him.To change the subject completely, is there symbolic or psychological significance to your fondness for Volvos?

SECRETARY POWELL: No. They just came into my life when my kids needed a car in college and they refused to drive their grandfather’s Chevy Belair. They wanted something sporty; I wanted something safe. They wanted something distinctive; I wanted something safe.I came upon this ’77 Volvo and gave it to my son who took it to college. It was a pretty interesting car. I bought another one, an older one. I play with sophisticated non-zero-sum things all week long. On weekends, if I really want to relax—and I don’t anymore, I can’t relax because I’m too busy here—but there was nothing that was greater fun for me or more relaxing than a zero-sum problem with the car. It’s not running? You put on a new distributor cap and it either runs or it doesn’t. And so the joy for me was to take—drag—home a car. I mean literally drag it home. My driver and I would do it. We’ve been known to go through Alexandria with a Volvo on a rope dragging it home. People started calling and giving them to me. They heard about me. I was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I’ll give you a Volvo on a rope.” The rope broke one day coming through the gate at Ft. Myer, with the MPs waving the Chairman through. We coasted until we could get another rope.We used to do this all the time. Bring them to the house and Sergeant Pearson, now Mr. Pearson, and I would take them apart. We had extra engines, we had extra radiators, had extra transmissions.


One meal a day

COWEN: To close, two questions about you. You’re famous for eating only one meal a day. Do you still do that?

MCCHRYSTAL: I do.

COWEN: Okay. The question is, what’s the meal?

MCCHRYSTAL: It’s dinner.

COWEN: What do you prefer to eat for the one meal, if you have your way?

MCCHRYSTAL: I’m not a foodie; I’m basic. I like salad, but I like a very basic dinner. I like a lot of chicken. If you take me to a fancy restaurant and you try to serve me fancy food, I’ll eat it because it’s my one meal a day, but the reality is, it’s completely lost on me. I just don’t get any satisfaction. It’s very basic food in significant quantities at night.

intrigued by this diet described by Stanley McChrystal to Tyler Cowen. I believe I heard elsewhere that McChrystal supplements this with dry pretzels.


Technical Analysis

Picking up the morning racing paper like Hemingway, I spot an interesting* item:

* interesting to maybe four or five people? Seth Klarman is a famed value investor and billionaire, author of Margin of Safety, a used copy of which will run you upwards of $800, or you can go to the Central Branch of the LA Public Library and read it for free. Apparently he’s been in the horse game for some time with a not too shabby record.

Asked how much different investing in a thoroughbred is to investing in a stock, mutual fund or company, Klarman said, “In my regular life, I’m a long-term investor, so we make patient, long-term investments on behalf of our clients. This is gambling, this is a risky undertaking. This is not at all like what I do the rest of my life, but it does provide one of the highest levels of excitement that a person can have.”

source for that

I put out the word to a few people I thought might be interested:

I’ve kept the correspondent here anonymous but trust me when I tell you: I believe he is being genuine!

My examination leads me to believe there is no “margin of safety” wagering on this horse, your safest bet in my opinion might be 10, Closing Remarks, to show, but where’s the fun in that? Analysts seem to think Aidan O’Brien can turn around Empress Josephine after just a week’s race – he’s done it before – but I dunno, I’d be tired!

Update: Technical Analysis came in 2nd, so if you’d made a “margin of safety” place or show bet, you would’ve done well: $2 to place paid $4.20, $2 to show paid $3.80. Seth Klarman, teaching us even through horses!


Hemingway at the track

I thought I would go down and buy a morning racing paper. There was no quarter too poor to have at least one copy of a racing paper but you had to buy it early on a day like this. I found one in the rue Descartes at the corner of the Place Contrescarpe. The goats were going down the rue Descartes and I breathed the air in and walked back fast to climb the stairs and get my work done. I had been tempted to stay out and follow the goats down the early morning street. But before I started again I looked at the paper. They were running at Enghien, the small, pretty and larcenous track that was the home of the outsider.

So that day after I had finished work we would go racing. Some money had come from the Toronto paper that I did newspaper work for and we wanted a long shot if we could find one. My wife had a horse one time at Auteuil named Chèvre d’Or that was a hundred and twenty to one and leading by twenty lengths when he fell at the last jump with enough savings on him to —-. We tried never to think to do what. We were ahead on that year but Chèvre d’Or would have —. We didn’t think about Chèvre d’Or.

from “A Moveable Feast.” We see here in Hemingway an example of the psychology that leads to the welldocumented “favorite-longshot bias” at the track.

They still run at Enghien:

The next chapter is called “The End of an Avocation”:

We went racing together many more times that year and other years after I had worked in the early mornings, and Hadley enjoyed it and sometimes she loved it. But it was not the climbs in the high mountain meadows above the last forest, nor nights coming home to the chalet, nor was it climbing with Chink, our best friend, over a high pass into a new country. It was not really racing either. It was gambling on horses. But we called it racing.

Racing never came between us, only people could do that; but for a long time it stayed close to us like a demanding friend. That was a generous way to speak of it. I, the one who was so righteous about people and their destructiveness, tolerated this one that was the falsest, most beautiful, most exciting, vicious, and demanding because she could be profitable. To make it profitable was more than a full-time job and I had no time for that. But I justified it to myself because I wrote it. Though in the end, when everything I had written was lost, there was only one racing story that was out in the mails that survived.

It looks like Hemingway wrote a sort of tone poem about the track for the Toronto Star in 1923.


If anyone has Bergson’s On Laugher in the original French…

I’d like to know what word translator Cloudesley Brereton rendered as “merry-andrew.”


The book is dense with a lot of references to French plays I don’t know, but two points worth thinking on: Bergson says notice something comic in the mechanical, when a mechanical process overrides how we should react. He gives the example of a man who stumbles in the street.

Perhaps there was a stone on the road. He should have altered his pace or avoided the obstacle. Instead of that, through lack of elasticity, through absentmindedness and a kind of physical obstinacy, as a result, in fact, of rigidity or of momentum, the muscles continued to perform the same movement when the circumstances of the case called fro something else. This is the reason of the man’s fall, and also of the people’s laughter.

Wile E. Coyote still running over the canyon came to mind, although Bergson died before he could see that. If we review comic characters, a misguided rigidity does seem to come up a lot. Consider Sheldon.

Bergson notes our vanity is a common source for comedy, and comedy may serve to correct for vanity.


most boring job in the world?

Did The Sopranos glamorise mob life? “If you think that was glamour, you need a psychiatrist! It’s the most boring job in the world — sitting round reading the racing form all day.”

Steven Van Zandt talking to Financial Times. When I first watched Sopranos, I was absolutely drawn to Tony’s lifestyle, of just sort of driving around all day, accepting snacks. Further viewings and a deeper consideration of my character and the burdens make me think I wouldn’t trade gigs with Tony, but still, something appealing.

Also of interest:

Then David Chase approached him to play the lead in The Sopranos. At that stage, “it was a completely different show . . . a live-action Simpsons”, Chase has said. In the end, HBO vetoed someone with no acting experience as protagonist, but Chase incorporated Van Zandt into the show as Dante, a character the guitarist had himself created in a treatment for an earlier project.

FT can’t help but editorialize:

He mixes shrewd political judgment (in April, four months before the fall of Kabul, he tweeted that the US leaving Afghanistan was “a huge mistake”) with left-field ideas (such as mandatory martial-arts training for girls from kindergarten age to reduce sexual assaults).

Left-field doesn’t mean bad, FT!


a stupid man

Field Marshal The 1st Duke of Wellington later said that he was “a very bad choice; he was a man wanting in education and judgment. He was a stupid man. He knew nothing at all of the world, and like all men who knew nothing of the world, he was suspicious and jealous.”

that’s re: Hudson Lowe, Napoleon’s jailer on St. Helena. This sketch doesn’t make him appear a delight to be around:


Wittgenstein on Dublin architecture

Of Dublin’s Georgian architecture, the streetscapes and squares of the city, he said: “The people who built these houses had the good taste to know that they had nothing very important to say; and therefore they did not attempt to express anything”. One thinks of the final sentence of the Tractatus, “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

Got that from “Wittgenstein in Ireland: An Account of His Various Visits from 1934 to 1949” by George Hetherington in Irish University Review. Also of note: