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15 January 2010


Matins: The Awl's Abe Sauer is in touch with some medical people who are running out of supplies in a town ten miles west of Port-au-Prince. A helicopter would be helpful.

I should have seen what was coming next, but for some reason none of us understood that the first injured person that showed up at the gate was just the beginning of steady stream that would continue into today. We gathered supplies from any structure we thought was safe and piled them in the grass parking area. Someone started separating the injured from the merely scared. We found and started a gas generator and powered two large fluorescent floodlights to illuminate our makeshift OR. We started cleaning, suturing and splinting and didn’t stop until 5:30 in the morning when we all lay down under the stars for the briefest of naps. Young and old were injured from head to toe and two dead were delivered to our gate. I held one lady’s head as she delivered at our gate. A little baby boy that Teresa and Amy massaged into life. This morning the second parking lot baby was born at the end of my driveway as we finished cleaning up my house. Teresa had about 10 minutes of sleep and is going full throttle today.

Lauds: The Online Photographer's Michael Johnston is far too nice a guy to lay down the law about building a collection of pictures, but, with a little help from his commentariat, he's taking a stab or two at it. Here, at least, is what a collection is not:

Let's say you like art, and these are the things you have: a Dürer etching on the mantlepiece; a LeRoy Neimann palette-knife acrylic painting of your favorite quarterback from the '70s, Roger Staubach; a Thomas Kincade print for your daughter's bedroom; three pieces of African carving some guy in a dashiki was selling on the sidewalk outside your hotel when you went on a safari vacation; a piece of 3D fabric art by an accomplished local lesbian artist who is sometimes on TV, which you won at a cancer awareness charity auction; a painting by a classmate of your son's from a senior show that you thought was the best thing there; a 19th century trompe l'oeil oil painting in a gilt frame of a vase of flowers you inherited from your great-aunt; a primitive folk painting of indeterminate age you found at an antiques shop; and an original Mondrian that took you four years to pay off, during which time you didn't buy any other art because you couldn't.

We haven't got a collection, but we do have an exclusionary rule about what goes up on the walls: nothing mass-produced.

Prime: Well, that didn't take long: Felix Salmon contests Malcolm Gladwell's assertion that John Paulson's investment strategy was risk-averse.

Gladwell’s thesis, in this essay, is that Paulson is actually very risk-averse, rather than being a big risk-taker. “Would we so revere risk-taking,” he asks right before introducing Paulson as Exhibit A, “if we realized that the people who are supposedly taking bold risks in the cause of entrepreneurship are actually doing no such thing?”

The fact is that Paulson did take bold risks, on factors which were entirely out of his control: When would the bubble burst? How long could he hold out before his investors deserted him? Indeed, Paulson’s strategy had a Ponzi aspect to it, where he would try to make up losses with new investments: “He bought CDS contracts by the truckload,” Gladwell writes, “and, when he ran out of money, he found new investors, raising billions of new dollars so he could buy even more.”

We think that the difference between Mr Paulson's risks and the banks' risks was homework. Mr Salmon puts the Pellegrini models on a par with the rating agencies'; we doubt that the latter were prepared with anything like the care that Paolo Pellegrini lavished on the work that he did for John Paulson.

Tierce: A cognitive psychology study of flattery: if it makes you feel good about yourself, no matter how resistant you think you are to its explicit claims, it will work. (Scientific American; via Arts Journal)

So, awareness of when we’re being put on may not be enough to curb the effectiveness of insincerity. Surely most people recognize that after drinking Bud Light a gang of gorgeous men and women will not be bursting into their apartment, eager to toast their new best friend. Or that they are one prescription drug away from not only lowering cholesterol but happily prancing through meadows with family and friends. What this research suggests, however, is that the implicit positivity we experience as a result of viewing these images could play an important role in what we reach for when standing in the liquor store staring at a freezer full of cheap beer. You may not know why, but you’d feel pretty good about a Bud right now. And while you feel certain to you that your preference is not due to those silly ads (just like it might seem obvious to a manager that they didn’t promote a candidate because he brings her donuts every morning), perhaps it is the certainty with which we dismiss these kinds of manipulative and deceptive appeals that allows them to hold such sway.

Sext: Edan Lepucki, of The Millions, purges her library.

So, one Sunday, we began.  My first idea was that we would do each other’s dirty work.  I would purge the books that belonged to Patrick, and he would purge mine.  Nothing would leave the apartment without the other’s consent, but it was a good way to be objective about the matter.  Patrick had no idea how much I’d enjoyed A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, so it clearly couldn’t mean all that much to me.  That stung–but he was right, and into the exit line it went.

It wasn’t long before we began purging our own books, voluntarily.  We were even a little frenzied.  It was liberating, for instance, to finally give away Fortress of Solitude, which I must now publicly admit, I didn’t like as much as everyone else did. It felt okay to pull my copy of Tom Jones from the shelf; if someone wanted to assume I hadn’t read it, let them.  Only I held the history of my reading past, of the semesters of college courses I diligently attended, reading everything (everything!) on the syllabus, taking sometimes useful, but more often ineffectual, notes in the margins.  I didn’t need the books themselves to remember my reader-selves of yesteryear.

Nones: In case you thought that bananas are an innocent pleasure, think again: Rebecca Cohen, at Science Creative Quarterly, lays out the very high costs of making bananas cheap. (via The Morning News)

The history of the banana industry is long, dark, and complex. Economic and political problems and the mistreatment of workers date back to the late 1800s in Honduras, when the first railway system that connected Central America with North America was built. Bananas are a very difficult fruit to transport and keep fresh, and the railways allowed the export of bananas. American businessmen very quickly bought large plots of land and shipped bananas to the United States, and a very prominent American corporation called the United Fruit Company (UFC) controlled the trade. UFC soon owned much of the best agricultural land in countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and the banana industry grew exponentially between 1900 and 1930.

At this time the term “banana empire” or “banana republic” emerged, appropriately named because UFC held incredible economic and political power in these countries. For example, in 1930 UFC owned 63 percent of the 103 million bunches of bananas exported from Latin America. The extent of their power and control was possible because Central America, a continent which historically had been economically weak and politically divided, was powerless against the large corporation. UFC thrived on the lack of unity, poverty, and corrupt governments. Businessmen were able to manipulate governments to get the best land, and vertically integrate the industry to control all aspects of production and keep prices low. Over the next few decades, Ecuador and many Caribbean islands joined the banana trade, while other transnational corporations emerged. Although these new producing countries greatly profited from the enormous amounts of exports, production of other industries declined, leading to an unhealthy dependance on the banana.

We still buy them, we're sorry to say.

Vespers: In the course of a tagging match last night, we encountered a dandy Web log: Latin Poetry Podcast. Christopher Francese, an associate professor at Dickinson, talks about his selection, sketches a translation, and then reads aloud. We haven't looked into where he got his accent, but it sounds weirdly right, and quite unlike the Oxford-don recordings that used to come out on Caedmon LPs.

O Venus, regina Cnidi Paphique,
sperne dilectam Cypron et vocantis
ture te multo Glycerae decoram
transfer in aedem

fervidus tecum puer et solutis
Gratiae zonis properentque Nymphae
et parum comis sine te Iuventas

That's one of our favorite bits of Horace, Odes I.30.

Compline: Even Justin Smith has made a donation to Yéle Haiti. So have we! So ought you! And, in the end, you have to love Pat Roberton, doncha?

In fact, Pat Robertson's senescent account of Haiti's plight — an account that happened to go viral, but was really only meant for the ears of elderly, bedridden Americans who lack the initiative and the computing skills to check these things out for themselves — is really just a slightly more crude version of what almost everyone says about Haiti. Even Haitians say it.

Most Haitians are probably better able to get their facts straight, though. In his brief summary of the circumstances of the purported deal with the devil, Robertson notes that at the time of the revolution, the Haitians "were under the heel of the French, uh, you know, Napoleon III, or whatever." In fact, Napoleon III was not born until four years after the Haitian Revolution, in 1808. When Haiti revolted, it was against a France still very much under the reign of Napoleon I (in the course of transitioning from consul to emperor). But maybe this sort of knitpicking is irrelevant, since that 'or whatever' is likely meant to signal that facts are not really what is at issue here. Pat Robertson deals with a higher order of truth.

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