The Daily Blague

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13 January 2010


Matins: Steve Coll on the terrorism learning curve, at The New Yorker.

The United States is hardly the first democracy to have its nerves jangled and its values challenged by persistent terrorism. The lessons from Britain, India, Israel, Turkey, and elsewhere imply that democracies require time as well as trial and error to find a sustainable balance of politics and policy (as was true of the United States, with respect to Communism, during the Cold War). The examples from abroad suggest that, while the cost of learning about terrorism in a democracy can be very high, it leads in time to strategic postures, backed by public opinion, that are based on national principles similar to those which Obama outlined in May. After the devastating attacks in Mumbai just fourteen months ago, for example, the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, ignored jingoistic cries for military strikes against Pakistan. In response, Indian voters last spring returned him to office and gave his party its best showing in nearly two decades.

We think that this is better-written than most political speeches.

Lauds: What a concept: "Sometimes you have to trust the musc." Anne Midgette (quoting WNO artistic director Christina Scheppelman there) reminds us that lean economic times can inspire truly great opera.

Indeed, many of the greatest moments in stage directing for opera have involved bare-bones approaches that got out of the way and allowed the music and its drama to take center stage. Consider Wieland Wagner's famed Bayreuth productions of his grandfather's operas, where the stages were largely empty disks, the costumes were minimal, and the force of the music and the characters, underlined by lighting, dominated the proceedings (much as they did in WNO's equally spare "Götterdämmerung"). Those productions were an artistic response to a postwar economy in which there was very little money, but the limitations gave birth to an aesthetic that had a disproportionate effect on Wagner stagings for decades to come.

Another example of financial privation yielding something of artistic value is John Dexter's tenure at the Metropolitan Opera during a period in the 1970s when the house was newly concerned with unfamiliar things like cost-cutting and populism (it was then that the august institution started referring to itself as "The Met"). Not all of Dexter's productions were successful, but in general his work was stronger than is sometimes remembered: his stripped-down, spare aesthetic dominated the Met's Verdi offerings for a while (his "Vespri Siciliani" came back as recently as 2004), and flowered in pieces like "Dialogues of the Carmelites," which one hopes the house will never, ever replace.

What opera really needs is a fresh crop of audiences: "But opera audiences are far more likely to erupt with excitement at conventions they would find unremarkable or cliched in other mediums, such as a live horse crossing the stage." If only Ms Midgette would come out and confess that for many "fans," opera is really a circus, with the singers as high-wire daredevils. (Washington Post; via Arts Journal)

Prime: What happens when the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe cannot service the debt on Foxwoods? Interesting times, according to Peter Applebome. Foreclosure is not an option; as Felix Salmon points out, the Pequots (or some other tribe) are the only possible owners. Foxwoods debt is sovereign debt. On the bright side, at least one Foxwoods visitor smells the problem with casinos. (NYT)

Andy Valeri and Chris Thibodeaux are down from Leominster, Mass. Neither seems too chipper. Chris, 23, figures if casinos come to Massachusetts, he’ll just go there. “The less money I spend on gas, the more I could spend here,” he said. Andy, 43, enjoys coming to Foxwoods once a month but would prefer that Massachusetts stay out of the casino business. “You know and I know that every inch of this place is a shell game to get people’s money,” he said. “I’d rather that we invest in something that provides real jobs and productivity, not more casinos. You just get the feeling that somewhere along the way, we took a wrong turn in this country.”

Tierce: When did Cotton become King? Robert Behre rips through the history of Southern agriculture in five very readable pages. The brisk pace makes it easy to see that, as frontier settlements gave way to plantations, slaves, originally extended-family members, were commoditized to suit crops. (HistoryNet; via The Morning News)

The colonists tried tobacco first, without much luck—partly because the European market was saturated, forcing prices down. But by 1685, the Carolina colonists found a different crop that made many of them fortunes a few decades later: rice. The slaves’ knowledge of growing rice in their native Africa is increasingly understood to be an important part of the rice crop’s success. South Carolina planters valued slaves from rice-growing regions; Henry Laurens, a merchant slave trader and one of the wealthiest men in all of the American colonies, distinguished between slaves based on skills they learned in their native lands.

“The Slaves from the River Gambia are preferred to all others with us, save the Gold Coast,” he would write. “Gold Coast or Gambia are best…next to them the Windward Coast are prefer’d to Angolas.”

Sext: Let's hear it for Roxxxy.

For $7,000 to $9,000, you can take home the Roxxxy, a high-end silicone sex doll that features touch sensors at strategic locations. Touch her sensors, and Roxxxy will parrot prearranged phrases via an internal speaker; particular bundles of phrases can be purchased, thus giving Roxxxy a “personality”: e.g., “Wild Wendy,” “Mature Martha,” or “Frigid Farrah.”

Didn't Grant Fjermedal predict this, in The Tomorrow Makers? It must be Today! (HiloBrow)

Nones: The news from Venezuela couldn't be drearier. As the Chávez regime effectively nationalizes consumer businesses, the oldest duel in South America (between oligarchs and populists) is restaged for the umpteenth time. (BBC News)

As soon as trading started again after the president's comments a series of supermarkets and other businesses across Venezuela were taken over by government tax inspectors.

State-run news agency ABN said food, car parts and other businesses were temporarily closed "for changing the price of products and for speculation".

The National Guard stepped in at three superstores belonging to the Exito supermarket chain.

Vespers: Without using the word, everyone is talking about the caesura in Joshua Ferris's new novel, The Unnamed: after two hundred pages of "longueurs" (The New Yorker), the story picks up. At The Second Pass, John Williams writes,

Fans of Then We Came to the End might spend much of The Unnamed thinking that Ferris is too talented not to rally, and he is. More than two-thirds of the way through the novel is an expertly rendered, heartbreaking scene in which we initially think Tim is back in his office. He’s not. From there, Ferris seems, for the most part, transformed, as if he’s finally reached the part he needed to write.

Compline: "File Under 'better late than never'," says Dan Hill of his tardy write-up of a talk delivered at Postopolis! LA last April. Better late than never indeed, to hear LAPD counter-terrorism chief Michael Downing answer questions linking police work (especially regarding gangs and/or terrorists) and urban design.

He talks about ‘Arcangle’, their “critical infrastructure protection programme”, which is 85% owned by the private sector. Its role is to “assess vulnerabilities … (there are) 500 or so assets in the database (and it) makes recommendations to private sector (in terms of where to place) cameras, gates, guards, ingress/egress (Again, this is the LAPD in urban design mode, to some extent.)

They have  “regional video command centre, which can “link up all the private and public CCTV”.  

Whereas “‘Trapwire’ measures behaviours, actions, mannerisms”. This can deliver a feed direct to his Blackberry of “all the suspicious activity that occurred in the city that night, and overlaps with open surveillance cases.” He describes a “richer picture, more intelligence”. (This is somewhat unbelievable - the torrent of data that would unleash could not be parsed, particularly on his Blackberry, leaving aside such issues of what constitutes such behaviour.)

As Mr Hill concludes, "Downing had the wit to explore it in accessible and meaningful fashion - even if his talk left as many questions hanging in the air over downtown LA as there were helicopters circling overhead." It's a start. (City of Sound)

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