Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Wipe your feet here

As with so much else, the Duck Dynasty guys are unclear on the concept of doormats.
Perhaps if they wore shoes they'd understand.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Book Review 378: Clive of India

CLIVE OF INDIA, by Mark Bence-Jones. 377 pages, illustrated. Constable paperback

In 1707 the last man to control a really powerful Muslim army died. This was Aurangzeb, Great Mogul. Within 50 years, Robert Clive at the head of an absurdly small army — in modern terms, a company of Europeans and 2 battalions of sepoys — overthrew what was left of the Mogul’s empire and inaugurated the British Raj.

He didn’t mean to.

Mark Bnce-Jones’ forthrightly opinionated biography “Clive of India” describes how Clive, a young man sent out to work in the rag trade, was thrust into a fluid situation and made the most of it. His experience was slight: a few years working around Mysore, where he learned something about managing Indians, primarily the value of an imposing confidence.

He had no military training and operated entirely on the principle of overawing opponents. For that reason he avoided encounters with the French or Dutch.

Despite his genius for manipulating Indians, he knew very little about Indian customs and cared for them not at all, learning only pidgen and a bit of Tamil. No Persian, which was the language of the Muslim rulers. Bence-Jones makes the point that he had a concentrated course in dealing with the southern Indians, as a trader and by sleeping with the women, but that did not prepare him for the different culture of Bengal. Nevertheless, he managed his way through the murderous, treacherous intrigues of Bengal, Oudh and Delhi with only minor setbacks.

His guiding precept was to deal honestly with the Indians. Not fairly; at times he was brutal. But he adhered (mostly) to agreements.

The most amazing of the many amazing aspects of his short career  — only about 12 years of military and government activity in all — was that he did it while having to depend upon translators. These men seem to have been loyal and honest — more loyal and a lot more honest than some of the East India Company employees Clive had to deal with in India and back in England.

Clive outmaneuvered his English foes as adroitly as he had the Indians. He was more successful than his successor Warren Hastings though Hastings was, in Bence-Jones’ judgment (which he never hesitates to give) the better administrator.

Bence-Jones grew up in India and uses his intimate knowledge of the place to correct errors and misconceptions from library-bound historians. Clive was one of the most controversial Englishmen and remains so. Bence-Jones attempts to expunge some of the legends and outright distortions that cling to his memory among English people.

These will be obscure to American readers but Clive occupies a position in English national memory akin to that of George Custer in America’s. Everyone has absorbed a lot about the men, whether they cared or not, most of it inaccurate.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Fish story

Long ago, when I was a sports reporter and editor, one of my tasks was to edit "Fins, Fur and Feathers," the local column for outdoorsmen. That wasn't the only outdoor column I handled. There was another, written by a moonlighting game warden who had taken a course called "News and Article Writing for Recreation Managers" at my alma mater, Moo U.

Moo U did not have a journalism course but it did offer two credit courses in journalism. I took the other one.

"News and Article Writing for Recreation Managers" apparently taught its students never to call a thing by its name. A fish was not a fish but "a member of the finny tribe."

Eddie, who wrote Fins, Fur and Feathers, had not attended Moo U but had picked up a similar method somewhere else. This led to some memorably awful writing. A flounder was not a fish but  a doormat. So once, when the fish-murderers had had a successful weekend pulling up large flounders, Eddie reported that "the bay was paved with monster doormats."

A pair of monsters

Eddie moonlighted, too, but he seemed to put more effort into Fins, Fur and Feathers than into his real job, which was being president of a small savings-and-loan association. Those were the days when running an S&L was not demanding work. The gummint allowed S&Ls to offer a quarter-percent higher interest on time deposits and to lend on residential mortgages.

This may seem like unnecessary gummint regulation but when the regulatory stranglehold was relaxed, the S&L business was taken over by more fearsome predators than Eddie ever encountered around Chesapeake Bay. By that time, though, Eddie and his S&L were gone.

The job may have been undemanding but it was possible to underperform.  While Eddie was out murdering ducks, his cashier, a middle-aged virgin, was performing good works with Eddie's customers' money.

In not much more than 10 years, she donated more than $2 million to her church. In those days, the cashier at a small S&L couldn't have been paid more than $20,000 a year, but the preacher and his vestrymen never stopped to wonder how the cashier -- I think her name was Evelyn -- could contribute $20,000 a month to the church.

Anyhow, that is not the only reason I am automatically skeptical when Christians offer to instruct me about morality, but it's one of them.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Are you in danger from boiler explosions?

No, obviously, at least if you live in the United States.

Boilers are my favorite example of why government regulation of business is a good idea, and with a new president and Congress coming into Washington with visceral and profoundly ignorant views about regulation, today is a good day to remind ourselves why regulations are a good idea.

Around the time of the Sultana disaster (in 1865), people were forced to come to terms with how dangerous boilers could be. The year after that explosion, the first boiler-specific boiler insurance company in the U.S., The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, was founded. At this point in history, industrial boiler explosions were taking place about once every four days, making them distinctly dangerous sources of energy.

Over the next several decades, more and more safety advocacy groups, safety-oriented legislation and testing codes were introduced, all with the goal of engineering and maintaining safer boilers. While these machines continued to malfunction on occasion, the frequency of catastrophic explosions was significantly diminished as the technology continually improved.
I doubt whether any of my readers has ever thought about boiler safety. That's because a sizable industry exists to improve and examine boilers, with the power to condemn the dangerous ones. (Some years ago the late Lahaina, Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad ordered a new steam engine which could never be used because its boiler was condemned.)

Voluntary standards were first, backed up with a form of financial coercion overseen by insurance companies; but while this was a good start, the "fireproof hotel" syndrome (about which RtO has often written) made it inadequate.

It requires the power of the state to enforce sensible behavior on businesses (for profit or otherwise).

Boilers are a poor example in one way, because they are hidden away in basements and outbuildings where no one sees or thinks about them. Comes now, however, an English engineering magazine which ran a contest for pictures of unsafe electrical installations. In poor countries these tend to be public and obvious.

There probably are regulations in most of the places where the "winning" photographs were taken (and certainly so in France, where one winner was found), but that brings up the next point: regulations have to be adequately enforced with regulators given necessary resources.

It costs money, which makes industrial regulation (and many other kinds) a First World solution to a universal problem.

Should anyone wish to dispute this analysis, here's a simple counterfactual: Describe any instance, current or historical, where a business spent money to forestall dangerous conditions before it was compelled to by government  force. (If you shop at a Lowe's or Home Depot, consider how they close off aisles where ladders are being used to restock and ask yourself, when did that start, why and have I ever seen the like at my neighborhood hardware store?)

(A list at Wikipedia, very far from complete, shows hardly any boiler explosions in the past 70 years.)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Nixon's treachery

From the New York Times, a sketchy account of Nixon's treachery in '68, to go along with his secret plan to end the war of '72.

Presumably a fuller version will be given in author John Farrell's new book, for which this seems to be a promotion.

More interesting to me is this throwaway line, also presumably to be  expanded in the book:

 They contain other gems, like Haldeman’s notations of a promise, made by Nixon to Southern Republicans, that he would retreat on civil rights and “lay off pro-Negro crap” if elected president.

That's why voters were justified during the election of 2016 in believing that the policies of the Republican Party were antiblack. They have been consistently for the past 44 years,  a disgraceful change from the previous policy of at least the liberal wing of the party. Yes, children, there used to be liberal Republicans, as there were conservative Democrats.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

To be or not to be Putin's punk

For months, leftist vulgarians have been portraying Trump as Putin's catamite.

Tacky and over the top?Yes. Inaccurate?

The subtle Obama has set the table for the world to find out. A New York Times analysis lays out some -- but far from all -- of the background but misses the real significance of Obama's actions to expel Russian diplomats and (in a move that I believe is unprecedented since at least 1941) deny access by foreign governments to their property in the US.

Not only does Obama remind Putin of the power of the United States -- despite the braying of rightwingers about Obama's weakness, Putin has been powerless to affect the sanctions that are wrecking Russia's economy, recalling Roosevelt's executive actions that destroyed Japan's economy in '41 (see my review of "Bankrupting the Enemy," Nov. 3, 2016).

He also presents Trump with a no-win situation when he takes office.

Either Trump continues to curry favor with Putin -- in exchange for nothing for the US --by reversing the expulsions and restrictions, which Putin signaled he expects Trump to do by declining to expel a like number of Americans (a hesitancy unprecedented in modern diplomatic custom); or he does not, thus queering (so to speak) the bromance on the occasion of the first real date.

If Trump chooses the second option, then Obama has effectively narrowed the amount of damage Trump can do to our allies by waltzing with Russia. But if he chooses the first, then he confirms the notion that he is a weakling, Putin's punk.

Well played, sir!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book Review 377: The Lodger

THE LODGER: Shakespeare on Silver Street, by Charles Nicholl. 377 pages, illustrated. Penguin paperback

A century ago, a diligent professor from the University of Nebraska discovered an authentic autograph of William Shakespeare at the Public Record Office, only the sixth example known. English Shakespeareans were embarrassed and outraged that a hick from what Mencken called one of the cow states would have upstaged them on their own ground, but at that time Shakespeare scholarship was limited to memento hunting and arguments about line readings.

It was not until half a century later that the study took a more sociological shift, and even then not much was made of the lawsuit to which Shakespeare signed his deposition. After another half century Charles Nicholl decided to look deeper into the suit to see if perhaps it would yield some insights into a writer so universal that the individual author seems hidden from view.

The short answer is that the lawsuit doesn’t tell us much about Shakespeare but we learn a fair amount about a family of French refugees from Catholic atrocities who were prospering in London and from whom Shakespeare rented rooms.

“The Lodger” came out in 2007 but is particularly relevant this month because some attention is being given to a writers’ petition in favor of humane treatment of refugees, to which Shakespeare wrote some compelling thoughts. The threats, xenophobia, pure ignorance and violence being displayed by Trump and his acolytes is no different than the violence of the London mob in the 1590s, and Shakespeare’s humanity and tolerance then is as needed now as then.

But Shakespeare did not merely speak on behalf of refugees. He lived among them, and this was unusual. Silver Street, where the Mountjoys had their shop and residence, was far from convenient to the Globe or Blackfriars and not close to the districts where London’s litterateurs congregated. Nicholl imagines that Shakespeare needed to get away from the theater district to find the calm he needed to write two plays a year while also acting nearly every day.

But discoveries about the (possible) sexual looseness of Maria Mountjoy, the landlady, leads to many pages of arch speculation about how close the lodger and the landlady were and whether he chose this particular place because of his attraction to dark ladies.

As it turns out, Nicholl finds exactly nothing to support his lewd imaginings, and we don’t even know if Maria Mountjoy was dark or fair. All the heavy breathing was irritating but nevertheless, to anyone interested in Jacobean drama, “The Lodger” is still full of interest as Nicholl chases hares down many boltholes.

Two points were especially revealing: Shakespeare’s collaboration on “Pericles” with a pimp with literary aspirations, George Wilkins, who perhaps was brought in to help the aging Shakespeare (by 1604-5 nearing the end of his 25 years of writing and somewhat out of touch with new tastes) catch the current market; and the oddity that most of Shakespeare’s later plays were about fathers having trouble with daughters.

It is not known that Shakespeare had much trouble with his two daughters, one of whom married well (so far as we can tell) and the other rather late and to a layabout, but that came nearly at the end of his life.

Nicholl makes a fair case that Shakespeare’s involvement in the marriage at Silver Street — he helped bring the apprentice and the landlady’s daughter together — combined with his anxiety about his daughters (he had no living son) — colored all the work of his last years.

But we do not learn whether Shakespeare’s real-life matchmaking turned out well or not. The son-in-law and the father-in-law did not get along but we do not know whether the husband and the wife were a love-match or even well-suited in the more mercenary aspirations of 17th century marriage making among the middle class.

It’s good yarn even if unfinished.