Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: DF Wallace on Boredom

Good Morning. Take a seat in the circle. This is "Saturday Story Hour."

Attentive readers may have noticed that Fosco has occasionally taken shots at late author David Foster Wallace. For example, when Fosco tastelessly mocked dead John Updike as America's "Most Overesteemed Writer," he couldn't resist slapping DFW around a little as well:

Updike had held the title of "Most Overesteemed Man in American Letters" since the death of Norman Mailer in 2007. Mailer had held the title for almost twenty years, with a brief hiatus from 1996-1999 when David Foster Wallace held the distinction.
Well, if you like seeing Fosco admit that he's wrong and that he's sorry... well, this will be a good post for you. (Although, of course, Fosco is not wrong about Updike. Nor Mailer.)

Yes, Fosco has begun to revise his opinion of David Foster Wallace, owing mainly to the recent "two-fer" in the New Yorker: an article about Wallace's struggles with writing and depression before his suicide last September and a short story by Wallace culled from his unfinished final novel. Both pieces are worthwhile, I think (I would read the reportage before the story, though).

The profile of Wallace and his difficulties is particularly heart-breaking, especially for someone like Fosco who deals with many of the same types of psychological issues (although, fortunately, in much less public ways). For years, Wallace battled with his antidepressants, including an especially powerful (and old) drug called Nardil. However, in the last year of his life, Wallace began to worry that Nardil was preventing him from finishing his new novel:
For some time, Wallace had come to suspect that the drug was also interfering with his creative evolution. He worried that it muted his emotions, blocking the leap he was trying to make as a writer. He thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse. Of course, as he recognized even then, maybe the drug wasn’t the problem; maybe he simply was distant, or maybe boredom was too hard a subject. He wondered if the novel was the right medium for what he was trying to say, and worried that he had lost the passion necessary to complete it.

That summer, Wallace went off the antidepressant. He hoped to be as drug free as [one of his characters] Don Gately, and as calm. Wallace would finish [his novel] with a clean brain. He entered this new period of life with what [friend and fellow author Jonathan] Franzen calls “a sense of optimism and a sense of terrible fear.” He hoped to be a different person and a different writer. “That’s what created the tension,” Franzen recalls. “And he didn’t make it.”
I find this to be an absolutely wrenching irony--the possibility that the drug that is keeping one alive is also the cause of one's inability to do the work that one lives for. This is actually a pretty typical irony of antidepressants for many people, as some of these drugs manage to produce everyday well-being at the cost of other types of pleasure (sexual, alcohol-related, etc.); however, in Wallace's case, it seems to have been elevated to the level of tragedy.

You probably know Wallace from his blockbuster novel Infinite Jest. Fosco has never been a fan of this novel. Despite Fosco's love for Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, Fosco found Infinite Jest too self-consciously "postmodern" and alternately too ironic then earnest; beyond this, Fosco always resented how the novel became a po-mo status symbol for (almost always male) hipsters who had only read one book (if that) in the entire decade of the 1990s. And thus, in Fosco's estimation, DFW became the most overesteemed American writer for a number of years.

But while Fosco still hasn't come around on Infinite Jest, he was surprised to learn that Wallace himself had developed serious reservations about the book. These reservations, even at the time of his writing that novel, were stylistic:
The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”

So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996.
After Infinite Jest, Wallace became even more convinced that he had not hit on a style that could sustain his deepest concerns. As the New Yorker piece notes:
Wallace was trying to write differently, but the path was not evident to him. “I think he didn’t want to do the old tricks people expected of him,” Karen Green, his wife, says. “But he had no idea what the new tricks would be.” The problem went beyond technique. The central issue for Wallace remained, as he told McCaffery, how to give “CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.” He added, “Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.”
Personally, I find Wallace's ideas about the purposes of fiction to be extremely moving. It is clear that Wallace recognized that Infinite Jest, despite it's popularity, had missed the mark of providing an affirmation of life.

The question then becomes: did Wallace succeed in his final (unfinished) novel? We may have a hint soon enough, as The Pale King manuscript will be published next year. Until then, we can read this excerpt that Wallace published in the New Yorker. The story (and the novel) focuses on the experience of boredom (a deeply philosophical state) among employees at the Internal Revenue Service. To be honest, Fosco is not quite sure how he feels about this story yet. Wallace's style is definitely refined here. And he is masterful at actually evoking the condition of boredom. But what is the "payoff" of this story? I'll be curious to see what you may think of it.

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Sweet, sweet honey

Posting will be a little light for the next few days, as Fosco deals with a confluence of work (paper draft due) and play (a visit from David!). Even so, today remains "Foodie Friday."

Good news for New York City Filipinos: Jollibee is in town! Buzz, buzz!

For all you white readers, Jollibee is a Filipino fast-food chain, occasionally described as the "Filipino McDonalds." Fosco has been told that Jollibee franchises are on almost every corner in Manila. There are also a number of locations in California. And now, finally, there is one in Queens, as reviewed by the New York Times.

Two summers ago, a branch opened in San Francisco and Fosco and Oz went to try it. Full disclosure: Oz is Filipino, Fosco is white--neither of us had tried Jollibee before.

The Jollibee menu is a bit odd (and not exactly "familiar to anyone who’s passed under the golden arches" as the Times review claims). There are basically four main types of food you can get at Jollibee:

  • burgers (called "Yumburgers")
  • fried chicken (called "ChickenJoy")
  • hot dog spaghetti in a sweet sauce (called "Spaghetti")
  • palabok, intriguingly called "Palabok Fiesta."
You can see a sample of the San Francisco menu below:

When Fosco and Oz went, the place was pretty crowded: Fosco had never seen so many Filipinos in San Francisco (apparently they all hang out at Jollibee). Because Oz is completely uninterested in Filipino food, he ordered a burger. Because Fosco is a well-meaning white man who wants to experience authentic cultural difference, he ordered the Palabok Fiesta. When we sat down, Fosco noticed that the only other white person in the restaurant was also eating the Palabok; all of the Filipinos were eating the ChickenJoy, natch.

And how was the food? Well, the burgers were bad. The Palabok was fine, but nothing I would rush to order again. Here's what it looked like:

Months later, Oz's Aunt M explained to us that the only good thing on the menu is the ChickenJoy. We should have known.

In conclusion, probably the best thing about Jollibee is its mascot. But look out, the mascots have been known to swarm!

Save me, BeeMaster!

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Postcard from the Edge

Mainly out of some vestigial attachment to his birth region, Fosco has found himself covering the complete economic collapse of Elkhart, Indiana (former RV capital of the world!). Thanks to the BeeMaster and his Consort, Fosco has a bit of good news to share:

The BeeMaster and his Queen are actually involved with the church and organization that are behind this plan and Fosco says "Kudos." Of course, Fosco tends to believe that government ought to be responsible for preventing people from starving; however, in the absence of a responsive government, this type of organized charity is life-saving. This is truly good work and I am thankful for it.

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The Iceland Saga, Part Two

This is part two of a lengthy post on the Icelandic economic crisis. You can read Part 1 here.

In the previous post on Iceland's financial collapse, Fosco took you on a whirlwind tour of numerous different sites and sources. In this post, Fosco wants to concentrate on two in-depth sources: this recent New Yorker profile of the Icelandic crisis by Ian Parker (frustratingly, only available to subscribers) and Michael Lewis's forthcoming piece in Vanity Fair.

When we last checked in on our frozen heroes, Iceland's culture and economy were in a sort of stasis. So what happens now? As Parker notes, this is what no one knows:

the question asked by any visitor was also being asked by Icelanders themselves: When a wealthy, First World country--publicly funded medicine, private jets, evenings of chamber music--experiences a catastrophe that shocks its neighbors and brings the International Monetary Fund to its aid, what happens next? How does ruin turn out?
Worryingly, we still don't know the answer. However, as Parker points out near the end of the article, there may be some measure of acceptance: ruin may not be as bad as everyone feared.
In a society with national health care, low energy costs, and little real poverty [read: a society completely unlike the US], some Icelanders--even those with monstrous new debts--allowed themselves the luxury of a slow exhalation. The opposite of prosperity is not extinction. [...] Many Icelanders seemed encouraged by thoughts of a more austere, domestic, and less self-consciously potent national reputation. There was some talk of knitting.
That's the good news. And I think, as good news goes, that it's actually pretty okay. Knitting is a somewhat reasonable activity. Cultural austerity is acceptable. Of course, things will be much worse if/when this happens in the US.

But now that we know that Fosco's beloved everyday Icelanders are probably going to be okay, maybe we should take a little time to blame the people who got Iceland into this mess. A good portion of both Parker's piece and Lewis's piece is a fascinating exposition of the roots of the Icelandic crisis.

Apparently, sometime after Fosco's last visit to the island (in the late 1990s), the government decided to cast aside the traditional model of Scandinavian socialism in favor of neoliberal economic "reform" (are you noticing a familiar villain lately?). The government privatized the banks, the phone company, and the fish-processing plants. Naturally, these newly private institutions were snapped up by members of the political ruling class. What remained of public institutions (like the Icelandic Central Bank) were de-regulated.

The Prime Minister who oversaw almost all of this neoliberalizing was Davíð Oddsson. Interestingly enough, after serving as Prime Minister, Oddsson got himself appointed as the chairman of the board of governors of Iceland's Central Bank. As Parker dryly notes, this was "an unimaginable move in almost any other political system." When Lewis tells it, this is an even stranger occurrence:
At length, weary of prime-ministering, [Oddsson] got himself appointed governor of the Central Bank—even though he was a poet without banking experience.

After the collapse he holed up in his office inside the bank, declining all requests for interviews. Senior government officials tell me, seriously, that they assume he spends most of his time writing poetry. (In February he would be asked by a new government to leave.)
And we thought GW Bush was disengaged!

But for a while, Oddsson's plan seemed to be working. He and his cronies were able to make lots and lots of money. As Parker notes:
the three main Icelandic banks--Kaupthing, Landsbandki, and Glitnir--and many of the businesses associated with them were leveraging themselves internationally. The distinction between these banks and their corporate clients is blurry: at the heart of Iceland's adventure was a small group of men and a fair amount of interconnectedness; and it's tempting, if not entirely just, to think of them as partners in a single giant national hedge fund.
And suddenly, Iceland--a country that was essentially classless due to socialism--suddenly developed a class of super-rich billionaires. This was a very good time for a lot of Icelanders, a period that Parker calls the "giddy years of growth":
an era now remembered for Range Rover traffic jams, and private parties featuring Elton John. Valgeir Valdimarsson, who until recently worked for the airline Iceland Express, compared it to the "dream season" on "Dallas." He said, "People were thinking, Wow, we're one of the richest countries in the world. They they woke up."
Many Icelanders viewed all this with bemusement. "In most cases, people were quite proud of what was happening," Andri Snaer Magnason, a leading Icelandic writer, said. [...] "But we didn't really understand it. A guy running twenty stores in Iceland suddenly had bought half the high street in London?"
It all sounds like great fun, of course. But you know what happens to leverage, right? Eventually you may have to put up some cash. As Parker explains:
In 2007, at the start of the global credit crunch, the Icelandic banks were not weighed down by weird securitized assets, but they were big--many would say irresponsibly so--and Iceland was tiny. The country had one of the smallest freely floating currencies in the world, and, before the crash, the banks had outgrown the national economy by at least nine hundred percent. (In 2007, the equivalent figure in America was eighty-one per cent.)
Ouch. I don't know a lot about finance, but I'm pretty sure that's a bad thing.

Lewis tells the story relying on different "highlights," concentrating on how these banks essentially borrowed more money than it could ever be possible to pay back:
In 2003, Iceland’s three biggest banks had assets of only a few billion dollars, about 100 percent of its gross domestic product. Over the next three and a half years they grew to over $140 billion and were so much greater than Iceland’s G.D.P. that it made no sense to calculate the percentage of it they accounted for. It was, as one economist put it to me, “the most rapid expansion of a banking system in the history of mankind.”

At the same time, in part because the banks were also lending Icelanders money to buy stocks and real estate, the value of Icelandic stocks and real estate went through the roof. From 2003 to 2007, while the U.S. stock market was doubling, the Icelandic stock market multiplied by nine times. Reykjavík real-estate prices tripled. By 2006 the average Icelandic family was three times as wealthy as it had been in 2003, and virtually all of this new wealth was one way or another tied to the new investment-banking industry.

In the end, Icelanders amassed debts amounting to 850 percent of their G.D.P. (The debt-drowned United States has reached just 350 percent.) As absurdly big and important as Wall Street became in the U.S. economy, it never grew so large that the rest of the population could not, in a pinch, bail it out. Any one of the three Icelandic banks suffered losses too large for the nation to bear; taken together they were so ridiculously out of proportion that, within weeks of the collapse, a third of the population told pollsters that they were considering emigration.
And lest you think that this growth was based on extremely complicated transactions that seemed like good ideas at the time, consider this description of Icelandic banking as reported to Lewis:
Yet another hedge-fund manager explained Icelandic banking to me this way: You have a dog, and I have a cat. We agree that they are each worth a billion dollars. You sell me the dog for a billion, and I sell you the cat for a billion. Now we are no longer pet owners, but Icelandic banks, with a billion dollars in new assets.
Holy crap, that's insane (especially since everyone knows that dogs are intrinsically worth more than cats). And how was it possible for them to get away with it? Well, it helped that the ruling Independence Party (Oddsson's party) was not just in favor of deregulation, but also (apparently) completely incompetent:
There’s a charming lack of financial experience in Icelandic financial-policymaking circles. The minister for business affairs is a philosopher. The finance minister is a veterinarian. The Central Bank governor is a poet. Haarde [the former Prime Minister], though, is a trained economist—just not a very good one. The economics department at the University of Iceland has him pegged as a B-minus student. As a group, the Independence Party’s leaders have a reputation for not knowing much about finance and for refusing to avail themselves of experts who do.
Now that part, at least, is starting to sound very familiar to these post-GWB ears.

And it's in speaking of GWB that Fosco has saved the best titbits for last (just like Vanessa Williams). It may be said that behind every GW Bush there is always a Karl Rove. Well, I think it's time for you to meet Oddsson's Icelandic Rove. Hint: he's psychotic! Parker describes him:
When Iceland changed, one prominent figure was a libertarian professor of political philosophy at the University of Iceland named Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson--a free-market intellectual. "In a sense, I was one of the authors of this adventure," he said in Reykjavik, in December.
I had learned that Gissurarson--whose blog takes you in one click to Edith Piaf singing "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien"--was widely distrusted in Reykjavik.
In 2001, Gissurarson published "How Can Iceland Become the Richest Country in the World?," entertaining the idea that Iceland could build an offshore financial economy akin to that of the Channel Islands. Margaret Thatcher is one of his great heroes.
And if you think this guy is an asshole, just wait--it gets even better. This is perhaps one of the most damning conclusions to an article that Fosco has ever read. And the best part, is that Gissurarson does all of Parker's work for him:
In B5, the empty and fashionable bar, Hannes Gissurarson, the author of "How Can Iceland Become the Richest Country in the World?," had said, "Ten to fifteen guys overreached themselves, they were out of control. But that is not the cause of the collapse." The primary causes, in Gissurarson's opinion, were the international credit crunch, the treachery of Gordon Brown--the "schoolyard bully"--and the failure of the European Central Bank to show Iceland support.

He also said, as if the thought were occurring to him for the first time, that it may be that "some of us are to blame indirectly, because we created a climate in which the entrepreneur was applauded. The businessmean, the guy who takes over companies, asset-stripping--he was a hero in Icelandic folklore that was created by some of us who strongly supported the free market." He went on, "Indirectly, I take some blame for it, but, if you think about it, it's not my fault. It's the fault of the left-wing intellectuals, who should have been giving a counter-view!" He added, "You can't blame people for their successes--you have to blame those who fail. We were too successful with the free-market philosophy."


Had it suited Iceland to be rich? "Very much so," Gissurarson said. "It was a hell of a good ride. Yes, it was."
Wait. Let's just re-read one of those sentences again. In fact, let's put it in bold:

"Indirectly, I take some blame for it, but, if you think about it, it's not my fault. It's the fault of the left-wing intellectuals, who should have been giving a counter-view!"

I think I can speak for almost all Icelanders (and for any Fosco Lives! readers who have made it this far) when I say: "Fuck you." Fuck. You.

Some recommendations in contemporary Icelandic literature, including works by Nobel-winner Halldór Laxness (plus one travel guide):

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

When the Go-Gos Ruled the World

Some more recent news from around the world: as reported by the BBC, the military coup in Fiji will not be holding elections.

This is a very depressing story, of course; however, Fosco can't really get past the fact that the coup leader's name is essentially Bananarama. Yes, that's right: Fiji is being ruled by Commodore Frank Bananarama. It's almost like we're living in a Pynchon novel. Also, I would recommend that the elected government of Singapore keep an eye on General Wilson Phillips. Just saying.

As for Fiji's future, I heard a rumour that this will be a cruel summer. However, several international celebrities have already spoken out in opposition to the coup, including Venus Williams. Additional celebrity support is imminent, although I've heard that Robert De Niro's Waiting.

Hey, if you ever wondered how the lyrics to "Venus" would be subtitled in Portuguese, well, you're in luck:

Por favor, divirta-se!

The Iceland Saga, Part One

The first part of a two-part post on the Icelandic economic crisis.

Fosco has mentioned before that he loves Iceland immoderately. He and his college roommate lboom went to Iceland twice in the late 1990s and fell in love with the place. So much so that Fosco has fantasies about living the rest of his life in coolest city in the world, Reykjavík. That way, he could spend at least one day a week submerged in the coolest spa in the world: the Bláa lónið (aka the Blue Lagoon. No, not that one).

Sadly, you've probably heard that things in Iceland aren't very stress-free as of late. As Fosco noted last fall, Iceland's entire banking system has collapsed. Fosco is actually surprised that this story hasn't received more press attention so far. After all, the media usually loves disasters when they happen to white people (and Icelanders are indeed quite white--almost transparent, actually). Maybe the Icelandic crisis just can't compete with our own American crisis (although Iceland's in a lot more trouble); or perhaps no one wants to suggest that what could happen in Iceland could perhaps happen elsewhere (like here).

Whatever the reason, Fosco is here to fill in the blanks. This is what you need to know about the Icelandic financial crisis.

One thing about Icelanders: they are a generally a practical and reasonable people. During the immediate aftermath of their economic collapse, foreign reporters had a hard time finding much of a "human story," owing to a general lack of hysteria. This piece from The Daily Beast found one major difference: "No One's Eating Pie Anymore." Hmmm. What could that mean?

In some ways, Icelanders are a lot like Americans. They look like they’re from Portland, Maine. I attended a party here and the host cooked three pies: apple, pumpkin and pecan – then we all sat around and watched the U.S. presidential debate. To say that these people are more dedicated to U.S. politics than Americans is an understatement.
Until food and supplies run out, the country remains in the quiet before the storm. During the first week, the main shopping street was jammed with cars filled with families driving slowly, aimlessly. They didn’t know what to do. The restaurants were empty. The only rejoicing to be found was in expat hangouts, where dollars, recently worth 70 krona, were suddenly worth 150.
Part of the reason for the lack of despair, the article notes, is that Icelanders aren't terrified by the possibility of poverty:
It’s only as the long slow slide continues that Icelanders will make it very clear that they’re not like Americans. Americans don’t know how to be poor. Witness the millions of us who live totally on credit, and the fact that we have no idea how to sustain ourselves. We make reality TV shows about our attempts at hunting and survival, while Iceland was still a poor farming country just twenty years ago. There’s an old guy in Reykjavik who grew up in a nearby cave. Yeah, caveman. They may look like us and talk like us, but they can also do stuff like farm and knit and fish. The editor of one of the two major newspapers here told me, “I’ve always assumed that if my editing or music career doesn’t work, I can always gut fish.” It was his teenage job.
Maybe Americans could learn that kind of equanimity... but I'm not holding my breath.

Of course, that doesn't mean that some Icelanders weren't angry. Take pixie chanteuse Björk, for example. Right after the collapse, Björk wrote an editorial noting that the Icelandic government was planning to use the economic crisis as an opportunity to grant aluminum rights to environmental rapists like Alcoa and Rio Tinto, rights that would cause a great deal of environmental damage to Iceland. As Björk notes:
Usually I don't notice politics. I live happily in the land of music-making. But I got caught up in it because politicians seem bent on ruining Iceland's natural environment. And I read last week that, because of the crisis, a number of Icelandic MPs are lobbying for the environmental assessment to be ignored so that the dams can be built as quickly as possible to give Alcoa and Rio Tinto the energy they need for the two new smelters.
Yes, the "I don't notice politics" line is annoying as hell; but she's exactly right about the rest of it. It may be an economic collapse for the Icelandic people, but it looks like it's Christmas for Alcoa! Whee!

So things were looking pretty bad last fall; and then know what made them worse? Gordon Brown. As in Prime Minister of Great Britain. You see, before the collapse, because Iceland's banks were crooked and incompetent, they were returning a great rate of interest. Consequently, many British municipalities, pensions, charities, etc. decided to invest their money in Icelandic accounts. When the banks failed and were seized, those assets were frozen. This angered Britons and their Government responded: by seizing all Icelandic assets in Great Britain under the legal authority of anti-terrorism laws. Yoink! Being treated like terrorists rankled Icelanders apparently. As this article noted, law-abiding residents of Iceland were a tad angry about being compared to terrorists:
"Ordinary Icelanders are no more responsible for the risk-seeking businessmen who happen to hold our passport than the people of north London are responsible for the destructive behaviour of the talented Amy Winehouse," said Icelandic professor Eirikur Bergmann Einarsson in the Guardian.
Well-played, Professor Einarsson.

But Icelanders are both resourceful and witty. As this piece notes, Icelanders responded by creating photographic postcards to send to Gordon Brown, informing him that they are not terrorists. Here's one of the cuter examples (and no, I don't know why they call him "Darling"--isn't Iceland grand?):

(And yes, every living person in Iceland--of any age--is extraordinarily beautiful.) There are now tens of thousands of these photographs; you can browse them here.

So let's fast-forward our narrative to January of 2009. Suddenly, Icelanders started to get a little more restless. Protests started to get big. And nasty. Well, just a little nasty (this is still Iceland). HuffPo's Iceland correspondent even noted that "Iceland Is Burning" (which seems to have been a slight exaggeration, although something does appear to have been on fire in one of the accompanying photos--probably just briefly). Heartbreakingly, blogger Iris Erlingsdottir made this plea for help:
Over the past eight years, America ceased being the City on the Hill, shining its light to the rest of the world. America and Britain closed the NATO air base in Iceland, and have made no offer to help Iceland in its time of trouble. We need help, not only to break down the old power structure, rotten to the core, but also to prevent it from being rebuilt. We desperately need stability, economic assistance, impartial advice, and fair supervision.

Barack Obama, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Please!
Clearly, Obama has other priorities, Iris. Could we interest you in a (slightly-used) Dick Cheney?

Sure enough, days later the Icelandic Government collapsed and a caretaker coalition took over (crazy Parliamentary system!) until new elections can be held. The new Icelandic Prime Minister is Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the first woman Prime Minister in Icelandic history and the first openly gay world leader (although there are still those pesky rumors about Stephen "Mr. Gropey" Harper). You've got to hand it to Iceland: even when their country is on the verge of dissolution, they manage to elect an elegant lesbian GILF as Prime Minister! Now that is style.

So where does that leave Iceland? Well, in some kind of stasis, it seems. The evil Balrogs of the IMF have shown up and have provided a loan and a plan to stabilize the economy (read: will make Icelanders pay for generations for the sins of a few ultra-capitalist robber barons). The banks are still frozen. No one has any money. Unemployment is up. Elections are still over a month away.

Fosco gets a daily dose of Icelandic news (thanks to a recommendation from his pal M-Life) from this site: Icelandic News in English. It's sad, of course--especially the description of the site itself:
Here you will find Icelandic news translated to English. I lost my job at the end of October as a result of the depression so, for now, I consider my job to be translating Icelandic news for those of you who are interested in this crisis that is shaking the very foundations of the Icelandic society.
Once again, we have to admire the Icelandic spirit. Unfortunately, the translations provided are not always so good (for one thing, newspaper articles never provide enough context for a foreign audience). And, for another thing, I think the translator's command of English is a bit imperfect (although much better than Fosco's command of Icelandic, natch). Here's a great line from an obituary of an Icelander who taught in the US:
He was a teacher of literature and penmanship at the Southwest Minnesota state university for the past 27 years.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that he probably taught "writing." Of course, when Fosco laughs at a translation mishap like this, he's mostly just laughing to drive away the tears. Poor Iceland!

You can read Part 2 here.

Icelandic literary recommendations. The Icelandic Sagas (written in the 10th and 11th centuries) are a great treasure of world literature. They are also surprisingly readable and interesting. Some recommended collections/editions:

Click through to purchase.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Who wants to go to Cornell?

Like any good progressive, Fosco loves Keith Olbermann and loathes skeletal oddity Ann Coulter. And even though nine times out of eight, Coulter is best ignored, an Olbermann-Coulter argument could well be entertaining. Of course, in an actual fight I would put my money on Olbermann, because he's a big tall guy. Although, come to think of it, Coulter is also a big tall guy.

However, this Olbermann-Coulter skirmish isn't so interesting. As reported by HuffPo:

Ann Coulter and Keith Olbermann are engaged in a bizarre but real feud over their alma mater, Cornell University.

Earlier this week, Coulter wrote a column trashing Olbermann and alleging that he didn't attend "the real Cornell" because he went to one of the University's state schools, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (known as the Ag School).

Coulter wrote that Olbermann "is constantly lying about his nonexistent 'Ivy League' education" despite the fact that he "didn't go to the Ivy League Cornell; he went to the Old MacDonald Cornell."
Of course, what's strange here is that anyone would be fighting to claim a Cornell degree. Fosco tends to think a Cornell B.A. is a lot like a nutmeg grater: it possibly could be useful someday, but it's never something you would brag about. Really, Ann and Keith: can't you both just agree that neither of you has a good degree and get on with things?

But, if we're really going to be picky, it seems that Keith is probably more correct here: Cornell is indeed (for now) an Ivy League school, whether you attend the private part or the state-funded part, whether you study philosophy or hotel and restaurant management. Besides, it's not like either Keith or Ann is in a business where an Ivy League degree matters much: Keith is essentially a political sportscaster and Ann is, ummm... some kind of clown?

You know what could bring Keith and Ann together? The one thing that all Cornellians could be proud of (if Ivy League sports were something to be proud of): a kickass basketball team.

[N.B., Fosco is actually not as much of a dick as he seems in this post. There is a long tradition of this kind of faux snobbery between the Ivy League schools and their students/alumni. It's just a rivalry thing--don't take it too seriously.]

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LOLtheorists Returns!

Sunday night (well, actually Monday morning), Fosco took this late-night study break while reading French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. See, the joke is that J-L Nancy's surname is easy to confuse (in English) with the dwarven heroine Nancy in the eponymous comic strip. After all, Fosco is using a lot of J-L Nancy in his academic work; and at the same time, the classic comic strip "Nancy" is always worth a read:

Both Nancys are good reads, although whether "Nancy" or J-L Nancy is more incomprehensible is an open question (especially considering the above strip).

Well, it seems that all of this "fun with Nancy" inspired the inimitable Todd to perform a resurrection of Fosco's once-popular feature, LOLtheorists. Here is Todd's laugh-out-loud depiction of Jean-Luc Nancy as an LOLtheorist:

Well done, Todd. I love it.

If you care to read Jean-Luc Nancy, there are two of his works that are aimed at the general reader and that offer reasonably accessible descriptions of Nancy's project of "The Deconstruction of Christianity." You could purchase them here:

Postcards from the End of Capitalism

Fosco doesn't like to write about our ongoing economic collapse. For one thing, it's hella depressing. For another thing, Fosco is no economist and he truly believes that, with the exception of maybe thirty or forty people in this country (including David Harvey), no one else knows what they're talking about when it comes to the economics of this mess. And so it's probably better for all of the know-nothings (Fosco included) to shut up and cede the field to people who know something.

But that doesn't mean that there aren't occasionally stories that need to be told. Nor does that mean that stupid ideas shouldn't be mocked. And so, Fosco brings you a roundup of several notable stories from the last week or so of economic melting...

  • Just in case you thought the global economic troubles were only affecting rich people (and you would be thinking that... why?), allow this BBC article to reassure you that the poor are getting theirs too. See:
    In a new report, the IMF says poor countries face greater exposure to the current crisis because they are more integrated into the international economy than they used to be.

    They are likely to feel the impact through a downturn in trade and falls in foreign investment and remittances - money sent home by people working abroad, the fund adds.

    The report says more than 20 countries, half of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, are particularly vulnerable.
    I don't know why this is a surprise to anyone. Either way, it's more bad news for the global poor.

  • Speaking of global collapse, things aren't too rosy in Ireland, either. Hey, remember when Walnuts McCain touted all the magically delicious Irish corporate tax policy? I'm not sure that's working too well, right now.

    Like most other wealthy Western nations, Ireland is in money trouble. And they're raising taxes and cutting spending (as a government must do in this situation). But, unlike the US, Ireland has decided to raise taxes and cut pay for all citizens. As you may expect, this is creating a wave of populist anger:
    The government is simultaneously raiding the National Pensions Reserve Fund for euro7 billion ($8.8 billion) to support the country's two biggest banks and has taken over a scandal-stricken third, Anglo Irish, after its directors were discovered hiding their own loans and losses.

    More than 100,000 workers marched last month on the parliament to demand that the nation's tax-exile elite — and even its billionaire rock icons, U2 — be forced to pay far more to keep their country from drowning in red ink.

    Unions representing 700,000 workers in this country of 4 million are balloting members to strike, among them the Irish Nursing Organization. It argues that the government should be seizing the assets of bankers and property developers who helped bring one of Europe's most vibrant economies to its knees, not squeezing life-and-death services.
    Fosco is certainly on board with punitive seizure of the assets of the crooks who fucked everything up. But, even more so, Fosco loves the idea of taxing the hell out of U2--mainly because of their terrible new CD.

  • I'm sure the whole Madoff saga could be sadder: it could still be revealed that his primary investors included a litter of terminally ill puppies. But, in the absence of dying baby animals, this might be the next saddest thing. You know Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel? Well, Madoff stole his money. And not just his money, but the entire endowment of Wiesel's foundation--a foundation with the mission "to combat indifference, intolerance and injustice through international dialogue and youth-focused programs that promote acceptance, understanding and equality." As this article notes:
    He said the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity had $15.2 million under management with Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, substantially all of its assets. Wiesel said he and his wife also lost personal investments, but he did not disclose the amount.
    And now, the eighty-year-old Wiesel is faced with a nasty moral dilemma in the twilight of his life: how to respond to someone like Madoff? Well, as far as Fosco is concerned, Wiesel has made the right choice: refusing forgiveness.
    "Could I forgive him? No," Wiesel said during a discussion, "Madoff and the Meltdown," hosted by Conde Nast Portfolio magazine. "First of all, it would mean he would come on his knees and ask for forgiveness. He wouldn't do that."
    Even if he did, I hope Wiesel could find it in his heart to refuse forgiveness.

  • And this is where things start to take a turn toward the ridiculous. You know how greed, lack of regulation, and laissez-faire capitalism may be just a little bit to blame for our current troubles? So naturally the Bible of that brand of capitalism, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, is more popular than it has been in years. Wait. What?

    Gawker is flummoxed by this development, wondering how such "libertarian porn" could seem relevant right now. HuffPo weighs in on the broader question of a revival of Randism, noting that the Right has decided to "double down" on Rand's deluded fantasies in opposition to tax increases on the super-rich. Somehow, I don't really see this working very well.

    However, in fairness to the book, Atlas Shrugged does have a nice art deco cover--which should please the BeeMaster.

  • If Ayn Rand is to be believed, we should be genuflecting to the Masters of Capitalism, because they're all better than the rest of us. They're smarter, more vigorous, more heroic. Clearly, she means the CEOs of our major US banks (among others). Clearly then, we should be paying rapt attention to these people, hoping for nuggets of their wisdom.

    Luckily, stories like this can help us to understand the minds of these Gods on Earth. You may want to take notes as former Bear Stearns CEO Jimmy Cayne shares with us his informed and insightful opinion about Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner:
    "This guy thinks he's got a big d--. He's got nothing, except maybe a boyfriend."
    Charming. Classy. Stop: you're both right!

    Wait, have we been trusting our entire American financial system to a bunch of foul-mouthed frat boys? This guy is one of Wall Street's "best and brightest"? No wonder our economy is fucked: trillions of dollars of wealth evaporates and this guy wants to have a dick-measuring contest?

    I think this bodes badly. In his doomsayer blog Clusterfuck Nation, professional pessimist James Howard Kunstler has been wondering how much time we have
    before the public simply goes apeshit and starts burning down Greenwich, Connecticut.
    All I know is that people like Jimmy Cayne make me want to grab my torch and sharpen my pitchfork.

Books mentioned in this post can be purchased:

Monday, March 09, 2009

Merry Melodies

One final note on "Music Monday"

Suzanne Vega had this meditation in the Times last week on the function of melody. Fosco has only ever listened to two songs by Suzanne Vega ("Luka" and "Tom's Diner"), but even based on those two songs, I think she's qualified to talk about melody. (But is she qualified to talk about non-annoying melody? That's a thornier question.)

Melody is interesting, although Vega's piece is not. Her essential point is that a good melody is not necessary to make a good song, but that a good melody can certainly make a good song. Profound? Not quite. All you need to do is think of the delights of "Love Shack" (not much melody) and "Mandy" (lots of melody) and you've gotten the point.

More interesting is Vega's list of her favorite melodies:

Some of my favorite melodies are: “You Took Advantage of Me” (Rodgers and Hart); “Birdhouse in Your Soul” (They Might Be Giants); “Almost Blue” (Elvis Costello); “The Art Teacher” (Rufus Wainwright); Mozart’s 40th Symphony; many songs by Laura Nyro. Sting’s melodies like “Roxanne” and “King of Pain” are elegant jewels. The Jason Mraz song “I’m Yours” is a good melody. “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder still fills me with joy.
I certainly have to agree with "Birdhouse in Your Soul," even though it's not one that would have immediately occurred to me. Good call, Suzanne. As for the others... I'm not quite sure that "Roxanne" works for me as a melody. I much prefer Jason Mraz's "The Remedy" to "I'm Yours." And Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony? How cliche!

Some other catchy melodies that come immediately to mind:
  • ABBA, "Lay All Your Love on Me."
  • David Bowie, "Life on Mars?"
  • Weezer, "El Scorcho."
  • Roy Orbison, "In Dreams."
  • Sun Kil Moon, "Ocean Breathes Salty."
  • lots of Death Cab for Cutie songs.
  • almost anything by Owl City, but maybe especially that Christmas Song.
  • the main theme of the fourth movement of Brahms Symphony 1.
Actually, in college one of my friends used to sing these words to that melody from Brahms 1: "The sandwich that Plato found worthy of every comment / was bacon, tomato, and slices of avocado." Try it--once you do it a few times, you'll never be able to hear the melody without those words (which is not a good thing, I guess). I have no idea where this came from (I tried Googling it to no avail).

College Radio

"Music Monday" turns out to be a good place for embarrassing confessions.

Fosco had a fit of nostalgia the other night (conveniently, during a fit of insomnia). He was thinking back to his college years and the music that he and his roommates used to listen to. It turns out he has very vivid memory images of certain songs/albums that are associated with very specific years of college. So, as an exercise in self-archaeology, Fosco has attempted to identify the albums that provided the soundtrack for each of his years in college.

Freshman Year:

  • 10,000 Maniacs, Our Time in Eden: "These Are Days" was the song of autumn 1992.
  • Peter Gabriel, Us
Sophomore Year:
Junior Year:
Senior Year:
  • Alanis Morissette, Jagged Little Pill: In all honesty, I can't think of any other album that I associate with senior year of college. Realistically, this was probably the only album being played at Harvard that entire year. Yes, that's pathetic--I get it.
I think one conclusion we can draw here is that Fosco and his roommates were complete tools, even with the exception of several really good albums from Junior Year. Which just goes to show that, for all of the credit college students get for listening to hip and obscure music, lots of college students have musical tastes lodged solidly in the mainstream.

In related news, the other day suggested that its readers should
find an album that you haven't listened to in years and refresh yourself with why you loved it in the first place. At the very least it might resurrect some good memories--really, what have you got to lose?
You know what? I'm going to listen to Whip-Smart right now.

Two Odd Songs

It's music, music... Music! "Music Monday," that is.

I don't know quite how to feel about singer-songwriter M. Ward. On the one hand, he writes occasionally appealing and melodic songs. On the other hand, he often sings them with Zooey Deschanel (shudder). Fosco has been testing his new album Hold Time recently, but can't quite get into most of it.

However, there is this pretty remarkable mid-tempo love song "Never Had Nobody Like You," which is built over the percussion track from Gary Glitter's Rock and Roll (Part Two). Take a listen: it's a strange experience, but not unsatisfying.

Duh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuch. Hey!

Have you ever come across a song in your iTunes library and had no recollection of how it got there? I found one just the other day. I don't think I purchased it, but I could have (although if I did, I never listened to it). It may have been an iTunes "free download" that I never listened to. It could have been on a mix that a friend gave me. It could have been something I downloaded from a blog. At any rate, it turns out to be kind of a good song. It's called "Wound Up" by the group Office. I can only find a live version on YouTube, but you can still get the flavor, I think:

Late Night Study Break!

Fosco is up late tonight (although it's now "this morning") trying to make some sense of a very difficult Nancy text. No, not this one:

You done got told, Betch!

Sunday, March 08, 2009

You Believe in How Many Gods?

Isn't "Spring Forward" Day strange? I mean, it's not like I was planning to do work for exactly twenty-four hours today; and yet, I feel like the loss of an hour has completely thrown my writing and reading plans into disarray. Not to mention that I normally spend way more than one hour a day doing absolutely nothing productive (often just stroking my goatee--and no, that is not a euphemism). So how is that losing this hour today has been so disruptive?

But if you're like me, you could probably use some cheering up as you plow into your (strangely daylit) evening hours. And so, Fosco offers you this picture, published earlier in the week at the HuffPo:

You may recall that Fosco is no fan of the air heir to the throne, mainly because he's dimwitted and cranky (Charles, that is, not Fosco). But Charles certainly isn't cranky here, is he? One wonders what that small Anglo-Indian girl could have said to make the Prince point and laugh like that. Of course, chances are he's not laughing with her. Isn't cultural difference funny?

Your Sunday Fantasie

Fosco loathes this half of the time change dyad. "Losing" the hour plays too much hell with Fosco's sleep schedule. I wish we could live in a world where we always "fall back" one hour in the fall, but never "spring forward" the next spring. Of course, this would eventually result in darkness at noon and other unpleasantnesses. Alas.

So to ease your bleary eyes this time-change Sunday, Fosco offers a gorgeous painting. This painting caught Fosco's eye several years ago as he was speed-walking through the "Americans in Paris" exhibit at the Met Museum. It took my breath away.

The painting is by Charles Sprague Pearce (1851-1914) (no relation to Charles Sanders Peirce, although they were contemporaries). Pearce was born in Boston, but lived and worked in France after 1885. In his work, he was something of an Orientalist (ya think?), so naturally he received the French Légion d'honneur. This painting, titled Fantasie was finished circa 1883 and resides in the collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

There is not a lot of academic work that Fosco can locate on Charles Sprague Pearce, but interestingly enough, there appears to be something of a disagreement about this painting. The Americans in Paris 1860-1900 catalogue essay for this painting identifies the subject as a boy. However, Aisla Boyd, writing in the Journal of Victorian Culture, disagrees:

Strangely Charles Sprague Pearce's Fantasie is identified in the catalogue and labelled as a young boy wearing a woman's kimono, but is more obviously a woman. Her cupid's bow mouth, hint of bosom under the beautiful silk, smooth skin and hair drawn back like a bob, contrast most dramatically with the firmly held samurai sword--the fantasy is that of the femme fatale rather than cross-dressing.
I think this is a faulty reading of the portrait.

Of course, the only way to resolve the question of the sex of the portrait subject would seem to be finding some sort of historical evidence that establishes the sex of Pearce's model (like a letter or journal entry). However, even that type of evidence would still leave open the question of the sexual ambiguity of the subject--regardless of whether or not said subject is "actually" a boy or a woman. After all, Boyd sees "obviously" a woman, while others see a boy. Clearly, this painting is not meant to evoke a stable representation of sex (either male or female). If there is one thing that's obvious about this painting to me, it's that the sex of the subject is not obvious.

Consequently, I want to read this painting as a queer painting. Think about it: either way, this painting is attempting to mess with sex roles. If it's a boy (and I think it probably is), why is he so feminized? Why is he wearing a woman's kimono? If it's a woman, why is she masculinized as a samurai? (I'm sorry, there is nothing of a femme fatale here--I think that's a ludicrous reading.) Either way, this painting is about some aspect of cross-dressing (which is its fantasie, right?). Boyd's reading of the painting tries too hard, I think, to unqueer a very queer painting--to establish a conventional alibi for what is a sexually subversive work of art.

If you are interested in the catalogue for this exhibition, you can purchase it here: