Thursday, December 24, 2009

Desultory Eclecticism's Christmas Gift to You

The alma mater didn't make a bowl game, but you can still find it on iTunesU.  Here's a full semester of Desultory Eclecticism's favorite professor lecturing on Desultory Eclecticism's favorite writer.  You'll never read As You Like It the same way again.

Get your Ralph Williams here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Вибори vs. Bыборы

The latest poll from Kyiv Post has newcomer Serhiy Tihipko pulling ahead of Yulia Tymoshenko (11% to 10%) for second place in the January 17th election.  While Victor Yanukovich maintains a comfortable lead, it must be remembered that the first electoral round will function more like a primary.  While the eastern half of the country is firmly behind Yanukovich (giving him a total of 34% nationwide), he simply does not have enough support to reach the 50% threshold necessary to obviate a second round of balloting.  The former Orange Coalition has fractured, and a handful of competing politicians is competing for its former constituency.  While most polls still favor Tymoshenko to finish second, whoever reaches 15% on January 17th will pick up nearly all of Arseniy Yatsenyuk's 6% and President Victor Yushchenko's 3%, in addition to the third-place finisher's 10-12%.  Expect to see--to the extent that it is covered at all--a rash of "End of the Orange" stories following Yanukovich's landslide victory in January.  The final vote is penciled in for February 21st--expect to see a much closer race.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Iran Out of Puns

Desultory Eclecticism had the pleasure of spending a good part of the weekend at Columbia University's "Iran: After the Election" conference.  13 Iranian and American academics and retired officials, including headliners Ervand Abrahamian and Gary Sick, spent all of Saturday presenting and discussing various Iran-related themes.  Three points of consensus:

1) The revolution (1979) has come full circle.  Mansour Farhang recounted his own experience from adolescence of being imprisoned and beaten by the Shah's secret police (this predated SAVAK) for his role as a propaganda mule for Mosaddeq.  Then he described Maziar Bahari's recent experience.  The difference?  Farhang's interrogator/abuser spoke with an upper-class accent and had no problem looking his victim in the eye.  Bahari's kept his prisoner blindfolded, leaving his "rose water" cologne as his most identifiable trait.

2) Nobody makes a good prognosticator.  Academics, analysts, journalists, diplomats, the participants themselves--they'll all extrapolate differently from the present and recent past.  One of them may be right, owing to luck rather than prescience.  Nobody knows exactly what June means or what it leads to.  

3) A hardline U.S. approach produces the best outcome for the Islamic regime.  Refusing to negotiate allows the Khamenists to continue branding dissidents as CIA tools.  Sanctions give the regime an excuse for economic stagnation.  This interpretation provides a rational actor explanation for Iran's recent nuclear bluster.  

The Orange and Green revolutions may have been inspired by similar events and infused with common sentiments, but Ukraine had no Basij.  Like the Shah in 1979, Kuchma's government refused to open fire on protestors; the Khamenei regime did not.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Misinforming Comments

Desultory Eclecticism had the privilidge of attending a recent conference at Columbia University marking the 5th anniversary of Ukraine's Orange revolution.  Speaking about the remaining challenges Ukraine faces moving forward, Professor Yuri Shevchuk noted the overwhelming Russian influence on Ukrainian media space.  On November 25, Washington, D.C.-based Foreign Policy printed an example, in an unironic manner.

In "Ukraine's Phantom Flu: How Yulia Tymoshenko created a swine flu panic to get herself elected president," "freelance journalist living in Moscow" Yulia Ioffe spins a misinterpreted, offhand comment from a Tymoshenko campaign official into an accusation of attempted electoral theft.  Citing fuzzy polling statistics and doing her best to dismiss both the WHO's positive reaction to Tymoshenko's decisive action and rival candidate Victor Yanukovich's history of corruption and dirty play, Citizen Ioffe provides a depressing example of the state of journalism in Russia and of editorial discretion in the U.S.

By paragraph 2, Desutlory Eclecticicism was formulating his snarky comment.  How could Ioffe neglect to inform her readers that, since no candidate has a legitimate prospect of breaking the 50% threshhold in the preliminary election on January 17th, this vote will almost certainly be followed up by a runoff between Tymoshenko and Yanokovich on February 7th, and that voters supporting the 3rd and 4th party candidates in the preliminary vote would never dream of supporting Yanukovich over Tymoshenko in round 2?  How about a mention that Ukrainians, as post-Soviets, are still notoriously dependent on government aid and advice to make the right decisions--like picking up tamiflu and staying off of busses--in the midst of a flu epidemic?  Who exactly is this obscure official source who Ioffe references on five different occasions in a 650 word article, always alluding to the same cryptic remark?

Fortunately, Taras Berezovets, the official in question, was educated in England.  Within hours of the article's appearance, he had responded with a comment headed "misquoted."  Outlining his personal understanding of Western journalistic standards, he laments that a hatchet-job like Ioffe's was actually published in an influential American journal.

Read it here, and don't miss the comments section.

Uninformed Comments

Desultory Eclecticism spent Thanksgiving weekend surrounded by reasonably adorable children who demanded that he find cartoons for them on youtube; we stumbled upon this one:

The clip is probably a closer approximation of "Sponge Bob: North Korea."  Desultory Eclecticism traveled to China in the early 2000s and saw a hard-working, crowded, chaotic, vibrant society with an occasional battalion marching in lock-step in downtown Beijing, but no outward signs of political repression (which are certainly there below the surface).  University of Michigan political scientist Ron Inglehart has forecast a democratic thaw in China within the next two decades; he may be on to something.  Unlike the ossified one-party Soviet regime, in 1978 Deng Xiaoping's Chinese Communist Party committed to a program of economic liberalization that has made China the #1 trading partner of WalMart and the proud owner of $800 billion in U.S. Treasury Bills.  Yes, the lethal force used in Tianamen Square in 1989 to disperse college students asking for political reforms similar to those instituted by Gorbachev under Perestroika better fit an impudent oil-rich dictatorship than a calculating Asian one, but the Chinese economy could not survive the bad PR of a similar massacre today.  So long as the Party delivers annual 10% growth, there will be no Tianamen-sized demonstrations, but eventually it will fail to hold up its end of the bargain.  Its calculated reaction to the subsequent popular movement will determine whether Inglehart's predicted thaw occurs peacefully or not.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Palin's Progress

Stupid is (the continued harping on the Russia/Alaska comments) and stupid does (the repeated answer that it was more--well, much more--than a joke) aside, the stupidest answer given in this interview met with nothing more than a half-disbelieving, half-glazed over follow-up from the interlocutor:

"I disagree with the Obama Administration on that.  I believe that the Jewish settlements should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is going to grow.  More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.  And, um, I don't think the Obama Administration has any right to tell Israel that the, the Jewish settlements cannot expand."

Palestinians are stateless, not Cherokee.  And with 20% (and growing) of Israel proper already Arab, Palin's flocking settlers, who are substantially more fecund than their secular reformed co-religionists back in Tel Aviv, would probably be better served staying in West Jerusalem and doing their best to maintain the Jewish demographics of the Jewish state.  Besides being anathema to both Palestinians and to those who pimp the Palestinian cause to justify violence against Israel and its U.S. underwriters, Palin's position is on the lunatic fringe of of any legal or diplomatic debate about the issue.

Charlie Gibson, who smugly opens the above clip, helped create this monster.  Desultory Eclecticism will reprint in full an email sent on the day after then-VP-nominee Palin's interview with the aforementioned Charlie Gibson:
Just a little note on the Palin interview.  Charlie Gibson seemed frustrated by the whole thing, especially when she kept repeating the same answers (NATO obligations, Israel's right to bellicosity, raiding Pakistan, Al-Qaeda Al-Qaeda Al-Qaeda), but this is his own [expletive deleted] fault.  Charlie Gibson, during the primary debates, actually posed the hypothetical to Obama: let's say we win in Iraq, withdraw our troops, but then Al-Qaeda comes back and takes over? what would you do?  The correct response to this question is: I would eat nothing but chicken McNuggets for the remainder of my term as President.  The level of foreign policy ignorance required 1) to suggest that the Al-Qaeda that attacked us in New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, Aden, Nairobi, and Tanzinia, you know, the one that Bin Laden actually founded and leads, is or has ever even been our primary adversary in Iraq, or worse, that it has actually somehow been in control there, and 2) that a fundamentalist Sunni group that is widely despised in the Arab world is somehow poised to take control of a majority Shi'ite country if American troops are withdrawn, is staggering.  When you parrot Bush Administration talking points for eight years and call it news, why are you surprised when the Governor of Alaska 1) doesn't know any better, and 2) gets a bump in the polls the day after endlessly repeating talking points that a majority of the electorate now thinks are true because they haven't been exposed to legitimate journalism since the Lewiensky scandal? [expletive deleted]
 Your Humble Desultory Eclectic 9/12/08

Sunday, November 15, 2009

State of the Union?

"There's a 55-45% chance right now that disintegration will occur," [Igor Panarin] says. "One could rejoice in that process," he adds, poker-faced. "But if we're talking reasonably, it's not the best scenario -- for Russia." Though Russia would become more powerful on the global stage, he says, its economy would suffer because it currently depends heavily on the dollar and on trade with the U.S... Interest in his forecast revived this fall when he published an article in Izvestia, one of Russia's biggest national dailies. In it, he reiterated his theory, call[ing] U.S. foreign debt "a pyramid scheme"...
The article prompted a question about the White House's reaction to Prof. Panarin's forecast at a December news conference. "I'll have to decline to comment," spokeswoman Dana Perino said amid much laughter.  For Prof. Panarin, Ms. Perino's response was significant. "The way the answer was phrased was an indication that my views are being listened to very carefully," he says.
Then eight days ago...

...and thirteen days ago he spoke at a Tea Party meeting in Houston.   Sure there's low-hanging fruit here, but I'll wait for Glenn Beck to inadvertently bake it in a pie and leave it on my windowsill to cool.  If there's one thing tea-baggers aren't, its traitors to the flag, and the schadenfreude of seeing Obama become the anti-Lincoln wouldn't outweigh the torture of being told by their Mexican opposite numbers (coca-cola-in-a-plastic-baggers?) to "APPRENDE ESPANOL O ADIOS" (Desultory Eclecticism assumes that Mexican conservatives' command of Spanish grammar is comparable to American conservatives' command of English grammar).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

State of the Federation

"We haven't managed to get rid of the primitive structure of our economy...The competitiveness of our production is shamefully low...Instead of a primitive economy based on raw materials, we shall create a smart economy, producing unique knowledge, new goods and technologies, goods and technologies useful for people."
Dmitry Medvedev, as quoted in the New York Times 11/12

Last year George Will wrote that Russia still has "essentially a hunter-gatherer economy."  While hyperbolic, the characterization is not far off.  In the 1940s the USSR developed the T-34 tank, indisputably superior to the frightful German Panzer, and used it to drive the Nazi Army from its soil.  In the 1950s it beat the U.S. into orbit.  But by the 1980s, father-of-the-Soviet-bomb Andrei Sakharov was comparing superpower developments to a long-run cross-country skiing race: yes, the USSR is developing technologies and keeping the gap between it and the U.S. close, but it is only doing so by copying the new equipment of its competitor; without innovation of its own it can never hope to catch up with the leader.

Medvedev is obviously right about the need for the Russian economy to diversify while it is still flush with resource riches, but the idea that it can develop a second Silicon Valley or Menlo Park is fanciful.  Henry Kissinger, noting that Hungary '54 was the only communist country ever to make a World Cup semifinal, attributed the sporting failure to "too much stereotyped planning," which "destroys the creativity indispensable for effective soccer."  

How far, and for how long, do such metaphors extend?  Ukraine has a fairly large reserve of underutilized, technically-trained software engineers who have been put to work on outsourced American software development projects.  Perhaps Russian could make itself over into a new India, but it is a long way from developing any new skis.    

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Very Problematic Song

Если у вас нету дома,
Пожары ему не страшны.
И жена не уйдет к другому,
Если у вас, если у вас,
Если у вас нет жены,
Нету жены.
Оркестр гремит басами,
Трубач выдувает медь.
Думайте сами, решайте сами,
Иметь или не иметь.
Иметь или не иметь.
Если у вас нет собаки,
Ее не отравит сосед.
И с другом не будет драки,
Если у вас друга нет.
Если у вас нету тети,
Ее вам не потерять.
И если вы не живете,
То вам и не умирать.

If you have no home,
There's no fear of a fire.
And your wife won't leave you for another...
If you have no wife.
The orchestra thunders with bases,
The trumpeter blows his brass.
Think for yourself, decided for yourself,
You get it or your don't.
To have or not to have.
If you have no dog,
He won't be poisoned by your neighbor.
And there will be no conflict with a friend,
If you have no friend.
If you have no aunt,
Then you won't lose her.
And if you're not alive,
You won't lose your life.
The orchestra thunders with bases,
The trumpeter blows his brass.
Think for yourself, decided for yourself,
You get it or your don't.
To have or not to have.
(trans. Michael Wasiura)

Desultory Eclecticism's favorite song from the Soviet equivalent of A Christmas Story.  Many of the ballad lyrics come from famous historical poems, and this song is likely no exception.  Unfortunately, I have no more information.  Enjoy Sergey Nikitin's vocals and Andrey Myagkov's lip-sync.  We'll revisit this movie come новий год (the New Year's holiday)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In the News

In my newspaper years, I prepared my share of advance profiles of public figures, and I know the scut work that goes into sifting through a decades-long career. In the old days it meant digging through packets of yellowed clippings in the morgue, interviewing widely, searching for those moments of controversy or surprise that revealed something interesting about the subject. How many rulings, opinions, articles, legal arguments, panel discussions, and speeches had there been in [Sotomayor's] long years of service? What bloodhound producer at Fox News had waded into this haystack to find these two choice needles?
Then I flipped to MSNBC, and lo!… they had the exact same two clips. I flipped to CNN… same clips. CBS… same clips. ABC… same clips. Parsing Sotomayor’s 30 years of public legal work, somehow every TV network had come up with precisely the same moments!           
 Bowden goes on to report that the clips were dug up by a pair of conservative-minded amateurs who took it upon themselves to find the dirt, or at least what could play as dirt in a limited soundbyte, on each of Obama's six or seven potential SCOTUS nominees.  The clips, ubiquitous within hours of Sotomayor's eventual nomination, were already well-know to Michelle Malkin's followers (of whose number Desultory Eclecticism is not).  Bowden, an actual journalist, gives his take at the link above.  The most interesting angle Desultory Eclecticism can provide, however, ties in with another column in the same issue of The Atlantic.
Castigating the comedic left (forgive the tautology, and the alliteration), Christopher Hitchens picks some unfunny  half-truths from a few Al Franken books and conflates them with the broader Stewart/Colbert phenomenon.  Oh, Christopher; I disagree. The Daily Show has been chronicling the decline of television journalism/commentary (much of the best material being furnished by Fox News in its evolution since November 4, 2008 from plain wackiness to certifiable insanity), and doing a really good job of it.  I don't know if there's an army of liberal muckrakers comparable to the Sotomayor hit-squad, but wherever the goods for this juxtaposition came from, it stands as a better piece of journalistic commentary than anything Desultory Eclectism has encountered on the real news, PBS excepted:

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween.

Something scary for Halloween.  As a recovering Mormon who turns to alcohol in times of need, Desultory Eclecticism has a special place in its heart for recovering alcoholics who turn to Mormonism.  Please, take Jesus' advice, and for 9 minutes, "Become passerby."  I don't understand it; you don't understand it; Harvard symbologists (if only they were real) wouldn't understand it. Just enjoy it.

Desultory Eclecticism is interested in anyone with information about the "Swords Into Plowshares" figurine featured in the above rant.  Having eaten out of bowls stamped "сделенно в CCCP", changed bulbs in light fixtures labeled "сделенно в CCCP", ridden trains and subways with factory plates denoting "сделенно в CCCP", hitched rides in its fair share of Krushchev-era Ladas  which were "сделенно в CCCP", Desultory Eclecticism is at a loss as to why a statue gifted to the United Nations by the autarkic, atheistic Soviet Union depicting the sentiments of a Isaiah 2:4 Micah 4:3, and the Book of Mormon's own II Nephi 4:12, was made into a paper-weight with a half-quote, in Russian--"to my dear, modern devotee"--from a man too obscure to warrant his own wikipedia page, then stamped--in English--"MADE IN USSR".

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Incurious Case of Alex Zinc

WEAVER: My name? Alex Zinc.
JUDGE: Where were you born?
W: Oh, in Nuremberg--that illustrious ancient city; rightly famous, honest judge.  First, because certain laws were passed there, that are of no interest here.  Second, for a debatable trial.  Third, because the best toys in the whole world are produced there.
J: Tell you lived; and don't lie.  It would be useless here.
W: Oh, I was hardworking, your honor.  Stone on top of stone; deutsche mark after deutsche mark.  I founded a model industry.  The best buckram, the finest felt were made by the Zinc Company.  I was a humane and diligent boss: honest prices, generous salaries, never a complaint from my consumers, customers.  And above all, as I was telling you, the best felt produced in Europe.
J: Did you use...good wool?
W: Oh, extraordinary wool, your honor.  Loose, or in braids; wool of which I had the monopoly; black wool, and chestnut; tawny and blonde; and more often...gray...or...white.
J: From what flocks?
W: Oh I don't know!  It didn't interest me.  I paid for it in cash.
J: Tell me, have your dreams been tranquil?
W: Well...usually, yes judge. my dreams...I've heard grieving ghosts...groan.
J: Weaver, step down.
Primo Levi?, as quoted by Ralph Williams

This week's The New Yorker  attempts to answer why, in the Information Age, so many are so virulently misinformed, transcending even the willful ignorance that allowed Alex Zinc to purchase Birkenau "wool" with a clean conscious (not conscience).  Desultory Eclecticism, in an attempt to perpetuate its own brand of misinformation, prescribes (with the caveat that, in the fearful words of Yahweh, when people work together "nothing will be restrained from them which they have imagined to do" Gen 1:6, and that one good individual planting himself on his ideals can do quite a bit as well)  prayer:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish 
the one from the other. 

Reinhold Niebuhr

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Still in the USSR?

“Soviet” is the name of a hotel that stands on the left-hand side of Leningrad Prospect in Moscow. On the other side stands a kebab house, which had long earned the nickname “Anti-Soviet”—not because its clientele or kebabs were subversive but because of its position: directly opposite the “Soviet".  
Last month the owners of the café decided to make a brand out of the Soviet-era joke and put up a sign “Anti-Soviet”. But they chose the wrong moment and inadvertently caused a political scandal which speaks volumes about Russia.  
On September 7th the Moscow union of pensioners and veterans, a name that oddly unites those who fought in the war with those who served as commissars, guards in the Gulag and secret policemen, complained to the local authority about “the inappropriate political pun” and urged that the name be changed in order not to irritate those who “respect the Soviet period in our history”.
The Economist, October 15, 2009 
A recent Economist article touches on a political-cultural tug-of-war rarely covered well in Western media, and The New Yorker's cover of August 3rd paints an accurate picture of it: the Soviet past is not dead; it isn't even past.
Even in Ukraine, the CIS state that may have suffered most under Stalin , foreign travelers are immediately struck by the persistence of Soviet-era landmarks.  Every village with a paved road has a Lenin statue (or three) and a Great Patriotic War memorial.  Main streets are still named Lenina and Sovietskaya.  In Mykolaiv, a medium-sized city near the Black Sea, the avenue named in honor of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Bolshevik secret police, has thankfully been renamed 3rd street; but at it's main bus stop, at the intersection with Prospekt Lenina, the small pavilion's old sign remains prominent: DZEREZHINSKOVO.  A Soviet Rip Van Winkle would not find himself at home in Ukraine--or Russia--2009, but he would certainly find enough of the familiar to be thoroughly confused.  Why?

How to remember your parents' (not your grandparents'; not your ancestors'; your parents') tragedies and triumphs--tragedies and triumphs on a biblical scale, destruction and celebration that dwarf 9/11 and the 4th of July fireworks--and forget their context?  A large minority of Ukrainians, in the midst of their second economic crisis since independence, will wax nostalgic--after a few glasses of vodka--about the good old days of the Brezhnev era.  Given a moment to reflect and an opportunity to vote, almost none would return to the cave.  Even Russia, perhaps disingenuously, celebrates Independence Day, marking the end of Soviet rule in the country.  

So why Prospekt Lenina and the ubiquitous statues?  Why not remove that red star atop the steeple on city hall?  Faulkner would understand, even if I don't.  The Soviet Union passed from the sands of time in 1991, the Confederate States of America in 1865.  South Carolina removed the confederate flag from its state house in 2000; expect the last red star to come down in 2126.  Robert E. Lee monuments still dot the South; wait for the last one to disappear, then wait 150 years; the final Lenin should come down.  The war memorials, of both, never will.  

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Україна має талант

Easily the most amazing thing Desultory Eclecticism has ever seen.  And it touches on some of the themes of an upcoming post.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Opening Day

The Washington Post does all the heavy lifting for us in setting up the upcoming (well, scheduled for mid January) Ukrainian Presidential election.  Desultory Eclecticism will be taking a field trip to do first-hand research during the last week of December.  Expect several more posts on this topic before all is pushed back multiple times and ultimately decided sometime in late Spring.  Let's hope Desultory Eclecticism's dark horse candidate, Арсеній Яценюк, can regenerate some momentum.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Party Paradox

Desultory Eclecticism loved Keith Olberman as a SportsCenter anchor but thinks he's on the douchier side of broadcast journalists (and that says a lot).  The following, however, despite the petty sniping, is largely spot on.

The talking head at the end of the segment makes a valid point sandwich, squeezing an intelligent observation between thick slices of bready sarcasm: Presidents have a much easier time accomplishing across stereotypes.

No Democratic President as unpopular as Bush 2006 could have passed the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act, run such massive budget deficits, or pushed for sensible immigration reform, without running afoul of tea baggers ; likewise, no Republican President would get positive coverage from Keith Olberman for increasing drone strikes in Pakistan (Juan Cole has continued to criticize the tactic despite the change in administration).  Paradoxically, throughout the 20th Century it was Democratic administrations, perceived as 'weak on defense' even then, who got us into wars (Hoover, WWI; Roosevelt, WWII; Truman, Korea; Kennedy/Johnson, Vietnam)* and achieved welfare reform and balanced budgets (Clinton), while Republicans warned us about "The Military Industrial Complex " (Eisenhower), finally got us out of Vietnam (Ford), presided over the largest budget deficits (Reagan), and passed sizable tax hikes (Bush I).   

The stereotypical party images are not entirely arbitrary.  Obama will get his healthcare reform bill.  He will also escalate in Afghanistan.  He will have a much easier time implementing the latter, just as, say, Romney, would have had a much easier time with the former (McCain was too unpopular with "the base"; but the fantastic Sarah Palin...). 

*Gulf War I (Bush I) lasted 100 hours and accomplished its mission precisely because that mission was so prudently circumscribed.  In hindsight, Desultory Eclecticism is hawkish on providing military aid to rebelling Shiites in the aftermath of the conflict.  Bush I took a less hawkish position; the revolt was forcibly put down; the millennia-old culture of the Marsh Arabs  was destroyed; a Democratic Secretary of State justified sanctions that led to the deaths of millions of ordinary Iraqis; Saddam Hussein remained in power for another 13 years.  Meanwhile, George Pataki can blame 9/11 on Clinton.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Глупый француз II

Yesterday, on Desultory Eclecticism...And now, the thrilling conclusion of Anton Pavlovich Chekov's "The Stupid Frenchman."

"Could it be that I'm dreaming?" the clown wondered.  "This man wants to die!  Yes, yes, he wants to die.  It's evidenced on his sad face."

"This service...there's nothing to be said," growled the neighbor, addressing the Frenchman.  "These long intermissions aggravate me horribly!  From portion to portion you're obliged to wait half an hour!  And so your appetite is given over to the devil, and it puts you in it's three o'clock, and I have an anniversary dinner at five."

"Pardon, monsieur," Parkour turned pale, "but you're already eating dinner!"

"N-no...what sort of dinner is this?  This is breakfast...pancakes..."  Here they brought the neighbor his stew.  He poured himself half a dish, seasoned it with cayenne pepper, and began to gulp it down.

"Poor thing..." continued the horrified Frenchman.  "Either he's sick and doesn't notice his dangerous situation, or else he does all of this intentionally...with the aim of suicide...My god, if I'd only known I'd stumble on such a picture here I wouldn't have come!  My nerves can't stand such scenes!  By the looks of him he's an intelligent man, young...full of strength..." he thought, staring at the neighbor.  "He could yet bring glory to his Fatherland...and it's highly possible that he has a young wife, children...Judging by his clothing he must be rich, rich enough...yet something compels him to decide on this step?  And he couldn't choose a different mode to die?  The devil knows how cheaply life is valued!  And how base, how inhuman am I, sitting here and not even walking over to help!  Perhaps he can yet be saved!"  Parkour resolutely stood up from the table and approached the neighbor.

"Hear me, monsieur," he addressed him in a soft voice, "I don't have the honor of being acquainted with you, but, nevertheless, believe me, I am your friend...Couldn't I help you with anything?  Remember, you're still have a wife, children..."

"I don't understand you!" the neighbor shook his head, staring into the Frenchman's eyes.

"Oui, why hold back, monsieur?  I see it perfectly!  You, sir, are eating so much's difficult not to suspect..."

"I eat a lot?!" the neighbor was amazed, "Me?  Really am I supposed to eat if since the very morning I haven't eaten anything at all?"

"But you're eating a horrifyingly large amount!"

"Well, why are you so worried?  I don't have to pay you for it!  And in general I don't eat too much!  Look around.  I eat like everyone else!"

Parkour looked around in horror.  The waiters jostled and bumped each other carrying whole mountains of pancakes.  At the tables people sat eating the mountains, and salmon, and caviar, with the same appetite and daring as the pleasant looking gentleman.  "Oh, what a strange country!" thought Parkour, exiting the restaurant.  "Not only the climate, but even the stomachs are strange!  What a country, what a strange country!"
(trans. Michael Wasiura)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Глупый француз

Since the dawn of Western Civilization (a good idea, no?), even the most inept derider has been able to find his butt in France.  But decades before freedom fries and death panels, a man of actual talent deigned to pick the low hanging comedic fruit of the tree of liberté.  Today, Desultory Eclecticism is pleased to present Part I in a II part series of Anton Pavlovich Chekov's "The Stupid Frenchman."

A clown from the Gintz Brothers' Circus, Henri Parkour, entered a Moscow dough house for breakfast.

"Give me some light soup!" he ordered.

"Would you like that with or without pâté?"

"No, with pâté it's too filling.  Just give me two or three croutons."

Waiting in anticipation for the light soup, Parkour occupied himself with observation.  The first thing he cast his eyes on was a full-bodied, pleasant looking gentleman sitting at the neighboring table preparing to eat pancakes.

"How notable the amount they serve at Russian restaurants!" the Frenchman meditated, watching how his neighbor doused his pancakes with hot butter.  "Five pancakes!  Can one man really eat such a quantity of dough?"  The neighbor, meanwhile, spread his pancakes with caviar, cut each one in half, and gulped them down in under five minutes.

"Strange," ruminated Parkour, evaluating his neighbor.  "He ate five pieces of dough, yet he orders more!  They say some illness accompanies one who eats so much..."

The waiter set down in front of the neighbor a mountain of pancakes and two plates with balyk and salmon.  The pleasant looking gentleman drank a shot of vodka, ate the salmon, and took on the pancakes.  To Parkour's great astonishment, he at them as quickly as if he had been hungry.

"Evidently he is sick," concluded the Frenchman, "and he probably imagines, the screwball, that he'll eat that entire mountain.  He won't even eat three pieces and his stomach will be full.  And after all that he'll have to go up and pay for the entire mountain!"

"Give me some more caviar!" yelled the neighbor, wiping the butter from his lips with a napkin, "and don't forget the green onions!"

"But...on the contrary, the mountain is already gone!" the clown realized in horror.  "My god, and he's eaten all of the salmon?  This isn't even believable.  Can the human stomach stretch so?  It can't be!  If this gentleman were in France he would be exhibited for money...God, the mountain is already nothing!"

"Give me a bottle of punch," said the neighbor, receiving the caviar and onion from the waiter, "but heat it up first...What else?  Perhaps give me another portion of pancakes, but faster..."

"Got it, and what shall you order after the pancakes?"

"Something a little lighter...order up some sturgeon stew, Russkie style, and...and...I'll think it over, get a move on!"

Don't forget to tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion of Chekov's "The Stupid Frenchman."

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Perhaps Desultory Eclecticism's favorite literary journalist.  I picked up The Soccer War  at my favorite bookstore last week.  In it, an interesting first-hand interpretation of the Six-Day War:

"Why did the Arabs lose the 1967 war? ...You could hear that Israel won because Jews are brave and Arabs are cowards.  The Jews are intelligent and the Arabs are primitive.  The Jews have better weapons...all of it untrue!  The difference lay elsewhere--in the approach to war.  When war breaks out, everyone in Israel goes to the front and civilian life dies out.  While in Syria, many people did not find out about the 1967 war until it was over...Syria was losing the Golan Heights and at the same time, that same day, that same hour, in Damascus--twenty kilometers from the Golan Heights--the cafes were full of people, and others were walking around, worrying about whether they would find a free table...The soldier cannot be alone: he will never hold out if he...knows that his brother is sitting in a nightclub playing dominoes, his other brother is horsing around in a swimming pool, and somebody else is worrying about how to find a free table...War cannot be a matter for the army alone, because the burden of war is too great and the army itself will not manage to support it.  The Arabs thought otherwise--and they lost.
(The Soccer War; p-201-202)

I understand we're not in Syria, 1967.  But for the past two days I've personally been much more distraught over this news than this news .

Monday, October 5, 2009

Low Hanging Fruit

Desultory Eclecticism took a field trip to Columbia University this past weekend for a Svetozar Stojanovic lecture.  The Serbian-American intellectual focused on the role of U.S. media in framing international issues, but Kosovo and South Ossetia naturally came up.  Stojanovic, a self-described "yugoslav," did not and does not oppose Kosovo's independence; however, in his concern on where the precedent may lead, he led me to today's blogpost:

"American support for Kosovar independence within the highest circles of the U.S. foreign policy establishment was nearly unanimous.  Yet when Russia intervened to secure South Ossetia's independence from Georgia a year later, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Condoleezza Rice were both vocal opponents of Russian actions, Rice comparing it to Hitler's annexation of the Sudatenland, and Brzezinski likening it to Stalin's invasion of Finland..."

I'm getting nit-picky here, but a Soviet-specializing, Russian-speaking, former National Security Advising Secretary of State couldn't do better on this than Godwin's law?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Gotta Support the Team

Your humble Desultory Eclectic grew up in, of all places, Michigan.  Not Detroit, but Michigan.  He has some friends from the suburbs and an uncle at Ford.  He grew up making a few afternoon drives across the state every summer to see the Cecil Fielder Tigers hit 3 home runs in an 8-5 loss.  He wore Cecil's #45 in little league.  He briefly became a yuppie (Cubs follower) after the move downtown from Michigan and Trumbull.  How could anyone forget those urinals?
The Tigers have a Sports Illustrated cover this week and a pivotal day-night doubleheader against the Twins today.  The meaning of communal emotional outlets in depressed places has probably been excessively hyped.  Michigan State basketball doesn't inspire people in Tennessee buy American; a dominant hockey team can't make GM competitive.

I've spent exactly two days in Detroit in the past three years.  I rode past the remaining corner of the old Staium--rebar sticking out of the few sections still standing--and it still couldn't crack the top 3 on a list of "the most depressing abandoned buildings within walking distance of the Fox Theatre."  I went to my uncle's house in the suburbs and had a nice meal at a newish strip-mall.  Then we went back downtown for the game.  Abandoned lots make for easy parking.  Even around the stadiums, so near Woodward, the combination of open space and old brick is disorienting coming from New York, though the homelessness is pretty standard.  Then you get inside and catch a glimpse of the grass, and move down to a $35 seat behind the dugout that would cost $350--easy--at Yankee Stadium, and Porcello doesn't have great stuff tonight, but we're finally hitting with guys on base and Inge saves a couple of runs with a nifty backhand and the bullpen protects the lead and Rodney has a little fun with everyone's emotions before closing it out and the carriage turns back into a pumpkin.

There's probably no glass slipper for Detroit.  Sure, a technically skilled, unemployed workforce and technically advanced, shuttered factories seem like the perfect combination for another revolution in transportation production.  Yet optimism is scarce.  A World Series won't change that.  Baseball won't fix a city of less than a million with an infrastructure built for twice that.  But God, for a few innings in October, it would be nice to turn back the clock to 1968, even if it's only a last hurrah.    
(h/t detroityes )

Sunday, September 27, 2009


Today, Desultory Eclecticism extends its heartfelt regards to long-time-reader, first-time-winner Thomas McClosky, whose interpretation of this Russian Fairy Tale has earned him a lifetime subscription to Desultory Eclecticism.  The moral:

Fear is a better motivation than anger/strength, and eggs make everyone feel better? Also, I don't get it--the gold's still there, just in really small pieces, right? I mean, and/or Flava Flave will still take it off their hands, right?

I believe it was Confucius who once kept himself awake an entire twenty-four hours, neither eating no drinking, in the hope it would somehow arouse his philosophic/artistic faculties.  His verdict on the experiment?  "It didn't work."  However, in light of our winning explication's 3:13 AM arrival in my inbox, I hereby encourage all Desultory Eclecticism readers, in the name of science, to test Confucius's results, this time without any silly restrictions on imbibition.  

A Second Note on the Ads

I don't choose them, Adsense or Adspace or whatever they call themselves does, so today we have a "keep your bureaucratic hands off my health care" selection.  Want to show solidarity with Desultory Eclecticism in the cause for healthcare reform?  Click on the anit-reform ads; each such click takes a penny or so out of their pockets and puts it under Desultory Eclecticism's mattress for safe keeping.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

This Sounds Familiar...

No afternoon naps at 151st and Broadway today.  El Rincon de la Moda (unfortunately directly across the street from my living room) is celebrating its grand opening with a traditional Latin ritual--blasting a salsa/Daddy Yankee mix out to the entire neighborhood.  It would be just like Honduras, if only that man out front carrying lumber were a guard out front carrying an assault rifle.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Qualifier

From Gideon Rachman's blog at the Financial Times:

Now clearly Gaddafi is going to get bad reviews in the morning papers here in the US. But I have to say that some of what he had to say made perfect sense. It is entirely true that the structure of the UN Security Council is anomalous and outdated (although it was perhaps a bit harsh to call it “the terror council”). Gaddafi’s analysis of why it is so hard to reform the council was also bang on the money - each time you suggest one country, you trigger a demand from the next one in the queue. (So if you suggest Germany, Italy jumps up and down.) And his proposed solution - a Security Council of regional organisations such as the EU, Asean, the African Union - sounded like an elegant way out.,,
...Many of Gaddafi’s statements, which will be scorned in the West, actually probably resonate in the developing world. His views on the Security Council are widely shared. President Lula of Brazil said something not too dissimilair.

I <3 NY

Before complaining of jet lag, suggesting that swine flu was conspiratorially developed in a lab, comparing the UN Security Council to Al Qaeda, embarrassing our own "black, African, Kenyan" President, questioning the Warren Commission Report, demanding the release of Manuel Noriega, and suggesting that perhaps next time we try "fish flu," "king of kings" and "leader of the revolution" Muammar Quaddafi just wanted a place to pitch his tent.
Selections from various news agencies:

An attorney for the town of Bedford, around 43 miles north of Manhattan, said the town ordered work to be stopped at the site late Tuesday.

"We believe the erection of a tent on the ... property violates several codes and laws of the town of Bedford," Attorney Joel Sachs said.

Sachs said officials found workers constructing the tent but could not communicate with them because they didn't speak English. He said they gave the order to stop the work to the property's caretaker.

"There is no such thing as diplomatic immunity when it comes to complying with local laws and ordinances," Sachs said. "This is a private piece of property and they have to comply with the laws of this municipality."

The Trump Organization said Qaddafi would not be coming to Trump's estate and insisted that Trump has not rented property to him. But it said part of the estate "was leased on a short-term basis to Middle Eastern partners, who may or may not have a relationship to Mr. Qaddafi. We are looking into the matter."onship to Mr. Qaddafi. We are looking into the matter.
But then, just before 5 p.m. came word that the tent was down and the notoriously eccentric Libyan leader had changed his mind. He wouldn't be coming to Westchester now. 

Still unanswered is how he got access to the Trump estate in the first place. 
It's Qaddafi's first trip to the U.S. since taking power in Libya 40 years ago. His plan to pitch a tent in Central Park was denied, and local protests foiled plans to set up in Englewood, N.J. 

A Bronx developer also refused to rent two mansions when he learned the people who claimed to be from Sri Lanka were actually Libyans fronting for Qaddafi
Still, it seemed appropriate to ask the keepers of some New York City landmarks, particularly those that have allowed entertainers to pitch their tents, how they would feel about having Colonel Qaddafi put up his tent in their neighborhoods.

Dick D. Zigun, the unofficial mayor of Coney Island and impresario of its sideshow and museum, pointed out that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus put up its tent this summer along the beach and took it down around Labor Day.

“Without question, Qaddafi is a circus,” he said.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has a lot of catching up to do. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Devil on Broadway

"Iran's hard-liners are pushing their country into a dangerous and perhaps crippling isolation that could, if Tehran continues on this path, eventually make it another North Korea...And Ahmadinejad, on the cusp of his trip to New York this week to speak to the U.N. General Assembly, has veered even deeper into a David Duke-like rhetoric about the Holocaust and the role of Jews in history."
(Juan Cole, "Does Iran Want to be a Pariah?", Salon)

Juan Cole, traditionally far from hawkish, comes down hard on the Iranian regime today in Salon.  The University of Michigan professor, who actually speaks Farsi, has continually provided the sanest voice in the public debate over just how to deal with Iran's developing nuclear program (Cole has tirelessly corrected misuse of Ahmadinejad's oft-misquoted 'vow' to "wipe Israel off the map").  If he is this pessimistic about Iran's desire for rapprochement with the West, it does not bode well for Obama's oft-criticized (albeit on Fox News) intention to sit down with the enigmatic regime.

At the height of the "election" protests in July, Iranian scholar Reza Aslan suggested that the country was teetering between China and North Korea.  Although a strong dissident movement remains as active as it can, and the president-select himself appeared to moderate temporarily in the wake of the July fiasco (he clashed publicly with supreme leader Khamenei over the selection of a vice president, and even over the appointment of a woman to a cabinet level position), Cole clearly interprets Ahmadinejad's recent rhetoric as a move towards the crackpot alternative, as opposed to the merely despotic.  

A month ago there was still a rationalist explanation to all of this: the regime, wanting to play up its democratic legitimacy at upcoming nuclear talks, tried to artificially inflate it's 'political capital' by fudging an election it likely could have just won fairly.  I don't see a rationalist explanation for Ahmadinejad's Jerusalem Day speech.       

The devil comes to Broadway this week.  It would be great theatre, if only it were fiction. 

Monday, September 21, 2009

Курочка Ряба

Жили-были дед да бабаИ была у них курочка РябаСнеслакурочка яичкоЯичко не простое - золотоеДед бил-билнеразбилБаба била-билане разбилаА мышка бежала,хвостиком махнулаяичко упало и разбилось.
Дед и баба плачута курочка кудахчет: "Не плачь деднеплачь бабаЯ снесу вам яичко другоене золотоеа простое".

Once upon a time, Pops and Granny had a spotted hen.  The hen laid an egg.  But this egg is's...GOLDEN!  Pops hit it and hit it, but he couldn't split it.  Granny whacked it and whacked it, but couldn't crack it.  Then a mouse ran out, waving his tail; the egg fell and shattered.

Pops and Granny cry, so the hen clucks: "Don't cry Pops; don't cry Granny.  I'll lay you another egg, not golden, but a normal one."
                                               (Russian Folk Tale, trans. Michael Wasiura)

Slavic children are much deeper than I am, which is why we're holding our first reader contest.  The best explicator of this fable not only receives a free lifetime subscription to Desultory Eclecticism, he or she also gets his or her moral published in a future post.  Have at it.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Haiku for Curtis Granderson

Your glove? Just superb.
Leadoff home runs are nice too.
Please hit two-eighty.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Healthcare Reform

I saw Howard Dean speak at a Barnes and Noble back in July.  A former doctor himself, he stressed that no matter how many disagreeable provisions were sure to be included in any medical reform bill that passes through two legislative chambers, the sine qua non of the entire effort is the public option.  Then he batted softballs from admirers.  

Until an Ayn Rand-colyte got up: "Will I have the choice not to pay for the public option?  If I can't opt out of getting taxed for it, even if I don't want it, then how is it an option?"

This baffled the five-term governor (note: gubenatorial terms are only two years in Vermont).  The easy answer is that it's just as much an option as public schooling.  Everyone's property taxes fund schools, even if they have no children.  Those who do, have the option to enroll them in a system of taxpayer funded public education, to pay a premium for private schooling, or to do it themselves.  I did not post this analogy at the time, and it is so obvious as to be no longer remotely original.    

However, many such complaints (though not most) aren't misguided.  Any government driven healthcare reform will, and like all entitlements will irrevocably, increase the size of a growing federal government.  It will replace some cubicled claims auditors with cubicled bureaucrats.  It will be flawed.  It will be expensive.  A profit-driven firm can't compete with an entity able to sell trillions of dollars worth of bonds to fund its short and medium-term insolvency (which is why every plausible reform plan puts major restrictions on just who is eligible to enroll in the sure-to-be-cheaper public option).  A public option for health care, like social security, medicare, the federal reserve system, the medicare prescription drugs plan, progressive taxation, corporate welfare, and public schooling, is inherently socialistic.  That doesn't make it the logical first step to gulags in the Dakotas.

Not a single independent observer ranks our current system as much above average.  In bang-for-your-buck terms we inspire all manner of unflattering metaphors.  Dr. Dean cited medicaid's overhead at 4% of costs, compared with a typical insurer's 20%.  He maintains that the marketplace is incapable of supplying two sectors: defense and healthcare.  I'm inclined to agree...until I hear a proposal to shift money out of the type of "Cadillac" insurance plan my NYC Department of Education-employed fiancee enjoys.  

I supported Barack Obama last year because I believed he was a political son-of-a-bitch in sheep's clothing.  If anything meaningful is accomplished on the healthcare front, I say it vindicates that analysis.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Bad Guys

Sitting in an uptown pizza place near an Hispanic family and trying to eavesdrop in on the rapidamente Spanish of their four or five rambunctious little boys, I know I got two words for sure: just as a slightly larger bowl-cut little niño was about to hit his slightly smaller, bowl-cut younger hermano, the aggressor loudly proclaimed himself--as if he were claiming Lebron James for a driveway basketball game--"THE TALIBAN!"