They paved paradise

“Surrounded Islands” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude (1983).

From Moderan (1971) by David R. Bunch:

It was May. Everything was up; everything was out; Central Seasons had handed that big iron switch to ON to send old winter reeling once again. The plastic snow sheets had turned over and under as wheels spun deep in the ground, and the spring yard sheets had come up and over on the drums in that fair and equal exchange that makes seasons switch no problem in our great Moderan. How Nature used to struggle to bloom those blooms up! Everything in conflict, fighting for a toe hold, beating the frost down or being beaten down . . . petty struggle . . . to nothing . . . and all so unnecessary. Now we have it all on giant drums with yard sheets, divided into four – winter part, spring part, summer part and fall – and turning a season up in plastic is just play now where once old Nature struggled . . . hard.

From The Dust Bowl (2012) by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns:

Though it originated on the northern Plains, they referred to it all as “Kansas dust.” And many of them quickly had ideas about how to stop it from blowing across the continent. A Chicago business believed covering the Plains with its waterproof paper might do the job, while a steel company in Pittsburgh thought its wire netting would work better. The Barber Asphalt Company of New Jersey estimated it could spread an “asphalt emulsion” over the land for $5 an acre. A woman from North Carolina suggested that shipping junk autos west would simultaneously beautify her state while stopping the wind erosion on the Plains.

Other ideas included building wind deflectors 250 feet high, or planting Jerusalem artichokes, or using rocks from the Rocky Mountains, or spreading leaves and garbage from eastern cities. Someone else proposed using concrete, with holes carefully placed for planting seeds. None of the suggestions seemed to take into consideration that the area in question was 100 million acres.

Maigret: Maigret and the Killer

I’ve been reading most of these Maigret books in order, but I jumped way ahead by mistake and read this one immediately after finishing Maigret’s Holiday. This led to a bit of whiplash, as Maigret’s Holiday had been published in 1947 and Maigret and the Killer came out in 1969. I’d been jerked, along with the technophobic Maigret, from the France of peasants and horse-drawn carts (or at least la France profonde) into the swinging world of Paris chic and the murder of a young man with disturbingly long hair who might be David Hemmings from Blow-Up (1966), only armed with a tape recorder instead of a camera.

“A political matter?” the reporters ask. “A love affair?” No, just madness. In other words, a modern, ironic crime, without any explanatory narrative: one where evidence means nothing and Maigret does less work than usual in waiting for the solution to come to him in the form of a guilt-bound, pathetic Raskolnikov. A crime more of our own time then, for not signifying much of anything. Welcome to random days.

Maigret index

Stupid rich people

Would you buy crypto from this guy?

A few years ago I did a post that asked the question Why do we think rich people must be smart? It was in response to a couple of embarrassing scandals then in the news involving billionaires: Robert Kraft getting caught in a massage parlour and Jeff Bezos sending dick pics to a girlfriend. Sure these guys were rich (Bezos was the richest person in the world at the time), but they obviously had more money than common sense. Still, I think most people tend to excuse bad behaviour of this sort, seeing it as just boys being boys and basically unrelated to the more serious business of acquiring ever more wealth.

But what then should we think of more recent headlines?

Item One: Elon Musk, who supplanted Bezos as the richest man in the world (at least for a time), bought Twitter. It’s not clear if he really wanted to buy Twitter, or if he sort of stumbled, in a very stupid way, into having to buy it. In any event, most expert opinion I’ve read says that he paid at least twice what the company was worth, and maybe as much as four times as much. That’s not smart. But what’s an extra $20 billion to Elon? And, as he said, he was just doing it for the LOLZ anyway.

The immense wealth of Musk, as has been widely reported, was built out of a lot of hot air and government money, which should have given Twitter boosters pause. And to be fair, a lot of business and tech types were pretty sure Musk didn’t know what he was getting into by buying Twitter. I don’t think any of them were forecasting the disaster that’s been unfolding thus far though. Musk doesn’t know what he’s doing, a fact that even he might slowly be becoming aware of. Meanwhile, was there nobody in his court to tell him just how stupid he was being? Evidence suggests not. Indeed, his courtiers were egging him on. It’s our old friend the bubble of privilege again.

Item Two:

Samuel Bankman-Fried, the CEO of the cryptocurrency exchange platform FTX experienced a rapid fall from grace when the company went bust. Indeed, the collapse of his personal fortune is thought to have set some kind of record. Reading his Wikipedia entry is good for a laugh:

Bankman-Fried’s net worth peaked at $26 billion. In October 2022, he had an estimated net worth of $10.5 billion. However, on November 8, 2022, amid FTX’s solvency crisis, his net worth was estimated to have dropped 94% in a day to $991.5 million, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the largest one-day drop in the index’s history. By November 11, 2022, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index considered Bankman-Fried to have no material wealth.

In fact, some reports say that his personal assets may now be below zero. Like I say, funny stuff. Unless, of course, you invested in FTX (which I’d previously warned against). But sticking with the point of this post, doesn’t this reveal that SBF was a Crypto Emperor (as the New York Times dubbed him) with no clothes? That he wasn’t some rebel financial genius, but in fact a moron?

John J. Ray III, the person appointed as CEO of FTX to guide it through bankruptcy, had some choice words for describing the corporate culture he found when he opened the books: “Never in my career have I seen such a complete failure of corporate controls and such a complete absence of trustworthy financial information as occurred here.” This from the guy who wound up Enron.

In both these cases we have billionaires not behaving badly in their downtime but demonstrating that they’re practically clueless when it comes to running a company (that is, doing their job). But both Musk and Bankman-Fried were beneficiaries of the deep-set myth of meritocracy in America. For more on this you can read my reviews of Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes and The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel. Suffice it to say here that great wealth has to justify itself somehow, and most often this is by using wealth as a proxy for intelligence, talent, a hard work ethic, etc. Because if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?

More often, however, great wealth is the result of luck, primarily through the accident of birth but also through happening to be in the right place doing the right thing at the right time.

The poster boy, idol even, of the collapse of such notions as money = brains is Donald Trump. But by now other examples are ubiquitous. Jeffrey Epstein was another supposed billionaire (actually he fell quite a bit short, but he was still very rich) whose wealth no one could explain. One longtime friend even dismissed Epstein’s intelligence by simply saying “He never knew nothing about anything.”

Now one thing that does stand out about a lot of these people is that they tend to be good at math. Being good at math, or being the product of a STEM education, is also seen as being a proxy for intelligence these days. But again, just looking at examples like Musk, Bankman-Fried, and Epstein one has to wonder. Intelligence takes many different forms, and just being good with numbers, while it may be a lucrative skill these days, is no sure sign of super-intelligence. If just means you’re good at math.

As Stephen Jay Gould once remarked, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” I think everyone understands this on some level, so why do we keep equating vast wealth with genius-level intelligence, especially given the weight of evidence to the contrary? I’m sure Elon Musk and Samuel Bankman-Fried are both reasonably bright guys, but that’s about it. They are also idiots. And, weirdly, I think that it’s by being idiots that they got so rich.

Persuasion

Sunflowers and soup. (Juststopoil.org)

Recent demonstrations, or protests, or acts of vandalism, have been getting lots of media attention, particularly in the U.K. Activists have been throwing soup on famous paintings (which are behind glass and so remain undamaged) and gluing themselves to highways, shutting down traffic.

There have been various groups doing this in recent year, with names like Extinction Rebellion and Last Generation. The latest round has come courtesy of Just Stop Oil. As you’d guess, the broader cause has to do with saving the environment and fighting climate change.

I agree with the point being made. The environment is an important issue for me, and I try to live in such a way that reflects my concern for what’s happening. But I wonder about the value of these stunts.

I’m not questioning the point that’s most often made: that acting out like this only alienates the people one is hoping to persuade. Instead, I question whether the basic premise behind such activism is valid.

That premise is that what’s needed is more attention and publicity given to environmental issues. This is the whole point behind throwing soup at a painting or blocking traffic: getting the media to notice. We live in an attention economy, and it’s felt that the environment is being ignored. If people only knew the nature of the crisis we face they’d act differently.

I don’t think any of that is true. In the first place, there’s a certain segment of the population — not a majority, but a significant number — who have made up their minds and will never believe the lying fake media or the consensus of a scientific elite no matter how loud the warning. Demonstrations will have no effect on them whatsoever.

A much larger cohort are already aware of the problem but don’t think there’s much they can do about it, or care enough to bother trying. George Monbiot starts off his column defending the protestors like this: “What does it take? How far must we go to alert other people to the scale of the crisis we face?” Again: I don’t see being alert to the scale of the crisis as the problem. We know there’s a problem. The media does report on it. It’s not an issue of attention and publicity, attracting eyeballs and getting clicks, but of persuading people to make changes to the way they live.

As I said twelve years ago in a review of Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff:

To say that Leonard is right in pointing out the dangers of not doing anything, of just continuing to live the way we live now, is almost beside the point. We know smoking is bad for you – a major cause of cancer and heart disease – but people still smoke. We know fast food will kill you, but that hasn’t stopped billions of people from eating it.

And these are examples where the ill effects of our behaviour are personally and (relatively speaking) immediately felt! The fact of the matter is that we are not a rational species, and we’re even worse when it comes to planning for the future.

Look: Unless they’re hiding their heads in the sand, everyone knows about climate change and global warming. They know the basics of how it works and they have a general idea of the steps that have to be taken to stop it. They just don’t want to take those steps and make the sacrifices that will be necessary.

Maigret: Maigret’s Childhood Friend

He’s not really Maigret’s “friend.” Though it’s interesting that everyone calls him that, assuming that he is. In fact, as Maigret constantly has to correct them, Léon Florentin was only a classmate, and one he looks on now with a mix of pity and resentment.

Given that weak personal connection, I was left a bit confused as to why Florentin would come to Maigret in the first place to get him to investigate a murder that he had some involvement in. This was much the way Maigret’s Pickpocket kicked off too, and I didn’t really understand it there either. Just laziness on Simenon’s part? I have to ask given the way the novel starts, with Maigret working at his desk with the window of his office open. He notices a fly buzzing about before “all of a sudden, as if it had had enough, it took flight and passed through the open window before losing itself in the warm air outside.” Maigret returns to annotating his reports when Florentin’s visit is announced and we’re told that he had “forgotten the fly, which, perhaps offended, must have flown out the window.” Well of course it flew out the window! We were just told so on the previous page! That’s lazy.

I’ve remarked before (in my notes on Maigret’s Patience) how often the character of the concierge in these novels is presented as a negative presence, though never an out-and-out villain. That’s the case again here, with a really ugly concierge who turns out to be the key that reveals the killer. She’s obese and scheming and resentful, possessed only of a sense of low cunning that Maigret has to work around in order to get at the truth. Were there any nice concierges in Paris or were they all this bad?

Maigret finds the whole thing so exasperating he breaks a pipe stem in his teeth at one point. This made me wonder how common an occurrence this is. Are pipe stems easily broken? I’d ask somebody, but I don’t know anyone who smokes a pipe. They seem to be very much a niche these days.

Not a great Maigret story, but it has some dramatic interest. Especially the way Maigret gathers all the deceased’s clients together so he can observe them interact. That was a nice bit of Poirot business. Though at one point Maigret’s philosophy on crimes of passion is expressed, and I think it’s a bit different than that held by Poirot:

He nearly told them that there are no such things as crimes of passion. And yet that was more or less what he believed. He had learned in the course of his career that the spurned lover or the abandoned wife will kill less out of love than out of a wounded pride.

Of course, wounded pride might lead to a crime of passion. It depends how sticky we’re going to be with definitions. Love and pride live next door to each other anyway.

Maigret index

Maigret: Maigret in Vichy

I don’t know if it’s because Simenon liked writing about them or because I like reading about them more, but his Maigret novels with wicked women as the villains are my favourites. It works (for me) again here as Maigret and his wife are on vacation taking the waters at Vichy, which is where a mysterious woman he had noticed as always dressed in lilac is found strangled one morning.

The heavies are the dangerously independent, and “self-satisfied,” Lange sisters. What a pair of schemers they are! We feel it’s only right that the elder Lange is killed, and Maigret even hopes the guy who did her in is acquitted. I can hear him muttering “What a bitch!” as he did at the end of Signed, Picpus.

It’s not much of a mystery, as there’s only one suspect and Maigret is led to him quickly through some rather random deductions. For example, that the phone caller needs time to arrange a meet-up is attributed immediately to the fact that he “must be married,” which isn’t an obvious connection to make. The back story is interesting though, playing like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for grifters, and it moves along in a tight, suspenseful manner. On the copyright page it says it was first published serially (in Le Figaro), which I don’t think was usual up to this point. At least I didn’t see any notes to that effect in the other books I checked. Given that there were two or three Maigret novels being published every year, serial publication wasn’t really necessary.

Perhaps a week at the spa was just what the doctor ordered in more ways than one, as this was the first really good Maigret story in a while, and I think stands as one of the better in the series. Bad women really brought out the best in our man.

Maigret index

Apathy in the U.K.

Meet the new boss.

The two signal political events of 2016, at least in the English-speaking world, were the often-paired British vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. With six years’ worth of hindsight, I think it’s pretty clear that both votes were disasters. Ever since, much ink has been spilled trying to understand why and how they happened.

I’ve read more books on Trump than I can count, and I think I can say I have a general understanding of the Trump phenomenon. A bunch of different factors, including some long-term and others more immediate, played into his election, and continue to keep his name in the news. America is in a bad place, with political polarization leading to a dangerous level of extremism, including violence and the more-or-less open disavowal of democracy and the rule of law by one of the country’s two main parties.

I haven’t read as much about what’s been going on in the U.K., which is probably why I’m having trouble understanding what’s happening over there. In many if not most ways Britain is in even worse shape than the U.S. Economically I think this is certainly the case, and it may be politically as well. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, “Britain’s Guilty Men and Women,” Tom McTague points a finger at the country’s leadership and its ruling party: “For the past 12 years, Britain has been led by a succession of Conservative prime ministers — each, like Russian dolls, somehow smaller than the last — who have contrived to leave the country in a worse state than it was when they took over.”

To this list has now been added one Rishi Sunak, a very rich guy who used to work for Goldman Sachs and who voters apparently trust to be able to manage the economy. Because that’s something rich people just understand.

Given how bad things have gone in the U.K. over the course of the last six years, what I can’t figure out is why the Tories haven’t sunk to basement-level polling numbers. On some level I “get” the Trump voter, but the Tory voter is a beast I know nothing about. In my review of The Lost Decade 2010-2020 by Polly Toynbee and David Walker (one of the few books I’ve read on the subject) what stood out for me was the level of voter apathy and the effect of a generational split. And I suppose the forces that are driving anger in America — social inequality and the rage machine of social media — are also at play. I’ve heard the British news ecosystem is bad, but as bad as it is in the U.S.? This I don’t know.

I just find it remarkable that after over a decade of misgovernance, incompetence, and outright failure the Conservative Party has any defenders left at all. The shock of 2016 was one thing, but at least in 2020 the U.S. tried to correct course (for how long we still don’t know). Why are the Brits still digging?

My chess is improving

My long, slow climb to becoming a chess Grandmaster continues. A couple of years ago I posted a screenshot of one of my games that showed just how bad I am (and how unserious I am about chess). But today I played what I think may be my best game yet, delivering checkmate in only 9 moves and without losing a piece. According to the computer analysis I did make a mistake, but pfft.

No escape for my opponent!

If the glove fits

I went to the Dollarama yesterday to pick up a pair of oven mitts for my mother’s kitchen. Nothing complicated about that. Or so I thought.

There were, I discovered, no “pairs” of oven mitts. What they had for sale instead were two-packs of oven mitts. That’s not two pairs, but two mitts sold together. Which sounded odd to me, since that’s how you usually buy gloves. You want two of them because you have two hands. But these weren’t pairs of oven mitts, but two mitts for the same hand.

Now, for a lot of oven mitts there is no righty and lefty because both sides are the same. But these mitts were cloth on one side and a silicone surface on the other (the side you grip with). So I couldn’t buy a “pair” of gloves — that is, a right and a left-handed glove — but only a two-pack of right-handed gloves.

Am I missing something? What sense does this make? If you’re going to make oven mitts that like this and package them together, shouldn’t there be a right and left-handed glove in each package? And what if you’re left-handed? Some things I just can’t figure out.

Many books in tiny rooms

As I’ve mentioned before (see my write-ups for 2016 and 2019) I’m a big fan of the annual book sale — formerly known as the Giant Used Book Sale — put on by the Friends of the Guelph Public Library. Because of the COVID-19 lockdown this event was cancelled the last two years, but this past week it was back on, and I was waiting in line to enter on opening night.

I knew going in that I was going to be disappointed, which helped. In the past the sale took over a small warehouse, but this year they were in the same building but had been shunted aside into some office space adjoining the warehouse proper. The result being that the floor space was reduced from 30 000 to 8 000 square feet. That was too tight, and there simply wasn’t enough space for all the books, or all the people. They had a limit of 375 people they could let in at one time, and there were that many waiting in line when the doors opened on the first night (which was also the only day there was an admission fee). Then there were so many people packed together when I got inside that I had to give up on the fiction room entirely as I literally couldn’t move through it.

As an aside, I came away from the experience figuring that, having escaped getting COVID thus far, if I missed getting it this week I could feel confident I had achieved some kind of immunity. So far, all clear! I remain a NOVID, or COVID virgin.

Not having enough room for all the books wasn’t quite as bad as the restricted mobility, since it meant the tables had to keep getting replenished with books from the storage area as the sale went on. So it made sense to keep going back. I attended on three separate days and found a big difference in the selection each day.

All-in-all it was a pleasant enough experience, though when I filled out the feedback form online I told them they needed to find a bigger venue (something I’m sure they already knew). The volunteers were great, and all the people were friendly despite the crowding, semi-competitive atmosphere, and lingering COVID anxieties. I figure around 20% of the people attending were wearing masks. But nobody was yelling at anyone, which was nice.

I was lucky in not wanting to shop for fiction. As it is, I’m always impressed at the kinds of books that people seem to flock to the most. The people who buy bales of books were mainly buying genre fiction: thrillers, mysteries, romance, SF/Fantasy, and YA. You can say what you want about those kinds of books, but the people who read them read a lot. Meanwhile, the rooms I was interested in — history, biography, criticism — were only lightly attended, and the books weren’t moving quickly. Which was nice for me, anyway.