Wednesday, February 1, 2012

mourning szymborska

The name of this blog comes from a line of poetry written by Wislawa Szymborska. Today, we mourn her passing.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you've come
can't be undone.

from "On Death, Without Exaggeration" (1986)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

on the death of bin Laden

On Sunday night, I received a text message with the news that Osama bin Laden was dead. My first thought was: well, this will be good for Obama's chances of reelection. Cynical and crass, I know. Afterwards, I had trouble falling asleep, as the apparent momentousness of the occasion began to set in. We've been hearing about this mission for so many years now.

Upon reflection, I think my initial reaction comes from a belief that while symbolically important, bin Laden's death hardly changes practical reality. The same risks abound-- iconic as we have made bin Laden, global terrorism is not a one man shop and people will continue to organize. The reduction of the problem to bin Laden's face has always been a gross simplification more suited to rhetoric than reality. Moreover, as many commentators have pointed out, the recent plethora of peaceful grassroots resistance movements across the near east have perhaps diminished the standing of al Qaeda and other similar groups and the appeal of their violent methods. There was much to be hopeful about before Sunday, and that remains the case today.

It's revealing to hear how people reacted and how they felt about the myriad public reactions. Conspiracy theorists questioned whether he was actually dead. These guys decided to get rich selling t-shirts. On Facebook, a friend noted the following:

It's weird to be joyous over someone's death. A bit unsettling.... but
that's how it is... how i felt..."

This sentiment was manifested at its most extreme by the crowds cheering in downtown Manhattan and at the White House. I count myself among many who found this deeply troubling. Some have used the term bloodlust to describe the frightening character of what were essentially pep rallies. It doesn't seem right to revel in death this way. I can understand that the 9/11 victims' families and friends must have felt a sense of closure upon hearing the news. I do not wish to belittle or deny their right to catharsis, and perhaps knowledge of this bit of justice will help them find some resolution. Nevertheless, these people must continue to live without their loved ones. While the world is certainly safer and better without Osama bin Laden in it, we cannot undo the damage he once wrought. Not even by killing him.

Fundamentally, I think it's important to acknowledge how fundamentally tragic this whole situation is. That we have even come to this moment is sad on the deepest level. Against this understanding, happiness seems wholly inappropriate and seems to miss the point entirely.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

keeping it handsome

California is a weird place. People like to surf and they wear flip flops year round. And apparently, they are also obsessed with Cory Booker.

My friend Reid (of Gonna Start Picklin' fame) and a few of his friends in LA have started a great new podcast called Handsome Afternoons. They describe it as "four men about town discussing all things handsome. Politics, arts, and culture, with good cheer and warm weather." They've managed to mention Cory Booker twice in just five episodes.

The bottom line: it's very funny and entertaining. I recommend you give it a listen.

[iTunes link]
[posterous link]

Sunday, May 1, 2011

the trump card

Donald Trump is an idiot and a fool. I'll assert that without argument and I'm happy to hear from those of you who disagree. Moreover, I'll anticipate his rebuttal and make it clear that I think he is an idiot and a fool even if he does have more money than Mitt Romney. His transparent sham of a presidential campaign ought to be laughable; unfortunately, it is deeply unnerving for all of the attention he has gotten. His high poll numbers probably say more about a lack of enthusiasm with the slate of Republican candidates so far than they do about voter interest in Trump himself. All the same, as someone who lives in the USA, I find it deeply depressing (if tantalizing as someone who wants the Democrats to win again in 2012).

Consequently, I was very disappointed when President Obama released his long form birth certificate, vindicating and legitimizing Trump and all the other crazy birthers he was riling up. It is hard for one to overstate how profoundly offensive this whole 'campaign' has been. Let's call a spade a spade: these absurd birther claims are awful and frighteningly vicious examples of racism. Trump reinforced the racial animus in his attacks when he bizarrely began to make claims that President Obama was somehow unqualified to attend Columbia and Harvard (read: affirmative action admit). Again, I will refrain from even making arguments here, because this is not a legitimate conversation or critique.

The point is this: what a low moment for a great democracy when the President has to sustain continued attacks on the legitimacy of his birth and citizenship, of all things! Have any past Presidents even come close to this kind of a blatant disrespect? In my view, the unnecessary release of this document was a surrender to lunacy. Trump doesn't deserve the time of day, let alone the satisfaction.

Arguably, there was some political gain in this release. I don't see it-- obviously the Democrats would love for Trump to be the Republican nominee, because he would be so easily defeated. Nonetheless, it's hard to believe there is any actual chance of this happening. Given this, I can't see what the political motive would be. On the other hand, President Obama has obviously proven himself to be politically masterful, and his strategists no doubt have better instincts than mine.

Speaking of which, President Obama went on to crush Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. Check it out.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

mad about mad men

** Warning: this post contains spoilers about the finale of Mad Men Season 4.

The most captivating and heartwarming romance on Mad Men has been that of the audience slowly falling for Pete Campbell. Don Draper saw it before the rest of us did. As the third season drew to a close, Don warmed to Pete Campbell. In the final episode of the season, Don Draper singled out Pete to be a young partner at the new agency. With a start, I realized that I too had developed a soft spot for Pete Campbell. Without my knowledge, Pete had transitioned from being that whiny entitled brat to one of my favorite characters on the show. This transition was subtle, sneaky, and yet completely believable. It's a prime example of the kind of magic that Mad Men writers typically produce. Surprising, engaging and understandable.

Which brings us to the final episode of the last season: Tomorrowland. It was awful. Yes, after all these months, I'm still upset about how terrible this episode was. Maybe Don Draper is ahead of the curve again and I'm missing something, but until this proves to be the case, I'll remain frustrated and disappointed.

It wasn't just that we wanted to see Don stick it out with Faye. Television that always indulged our obvious desires and never surprised would be boring television. I didn't need things to go smoothly. I needed things to go believably. That Don would so abruptly convince himself that he was in love and propose to Megan was ridiculous and most importantly unsupported by the writing before that episode. Sure, we saw her come onto him clumsily in a prior episode. We saw him glancing at her in the penultimate episode, suddenly realizing that she was pretty. Still, what about the whole season with Faye? What about the laps in the swimming pool, getting past alcoholism? In short, why did the writers toss all of Don Draper's growth out the window, and why did they do it so clumsily?

Having said all that, do we really need to wait until 2012 for redemption?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

reading make believe

When it comes to selecting books to read, I try to alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Of course I will occasionally break the rule if I become very engaged with an idea or with an author, but as much as possible, I try to stick to this heuristic. I like rules of thumbs and this one helps me to ensure that I am reading a good balance of fiction and non-fiction.

Some of my friends claim to only read non-fiction. This always strikes me as odd; my initial reaction is you're missing out on so much! When I ask why, people usually tell me that they feel like it would be wrong to waste time on fiction when there is so much out there for them to learn and become aware of. As the thinking goes, why read a made up story when there are real things to learn about. Surely our western revere for the liberal arts should leave us better off than to fall prey to this deeply flawed and illogical conclusion. To think that we don't learn from literature is deeply disrespectful to the world of art and betrays an arrogance in placing other fields of knowledge on a pedestal.

Fiction, and the fine arts generally, teach us things about humanity and emotion that we cannot always gleam from non-fiction. You won't learn as many facts. I can acknowledge this, but when did knowledge ever end (or even begin) with facts? Art gives us a better understanding of the peripheries. Fiction is a part of this tradition.

Oddly, I hear this sentiment most often from those friends who have some political and social awareness and engagement. Implicit in their reasoning is a haughty self righteousness: these people are too principled to waste time on fiction when there is a world to better. To this, I would respond: it is no coincidence that so many great thinkers have lauded the critical importance and indeed necessity of a vibrant arts community in any successful democracy. This is not just fluffy feel-good talk. Where else can we explore the boundaries of acceptability and possibility? In fiction and make believe, we can explore our potential. We can subtly dissent and ask questions of authority that in other forums may prove to be more uncomfortable. We can be provocative and say: "Oh that? It was just make believe." All the same, people will be thinking.

It seems to me that fiction is particularly important as an antidote to the worship we accord to free market capitalism in so many developed economies. In choosing to read fiction and partake in the arts, we acknowledge the inherent limits of the market-based analysis that so often consumes us. We acknowledge that not everything can be priced and that the best of an enlightened society means broadening our thinking beyond a cold and simplistic understanding of utility. Moreover, as I alluded to above, the arts provide a safe space where we can collectively challenge prevailing norms and explore our limits in a socially acceptable way.

I would love to hear from some of you who choose to only read non-fiction. From my vantage point, you are stunting your own personal development and also failing to engage fully as social and political beings. I'd welcome your arguments otherwise.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

strength in numbers

Enough is enough. I'm tired of all the hate being directed at labor unions.

The casual ease with which Americans now talk about outlawing unions and collective bargaining is breathtaking in its audacity. The normalcy accorded to this very radical idea is evidence of just how far right political discourse has moved in the USA. The state legislature in Wisconsin passed just such a law and despite some early press coverage, the story has turned out to be basically a non-event. Teachers have once again been made out to be villains in order to advance this agenda. We have an odious Supreme Court that is so cruel and dismissive of individuals that it effectively denied women the right to sue for any substantive back pay if they discover that their employer has been paying them less than a man with an identical job. Against this legal backdrop, unions are more important than ever!

Where is the moral wrong is forming an organization to represent collective interests? Though the very word 'union' has come to connote corruption and inefficiency, let's not forget that it's ultimately just a group of people coming together to negotiate from a position of greater strength. The owners are always organized: it's embedded into the very structure of a corporation. Management acts collectively on behalf of the owners. Similarly, in the case of public employees, government organizations act collectively on behalf of the taxpayers. To assume that unionized employees are somehow 'cheating' the companies that employ workers is either disingenuous or dangerously ignorant. If anything, the unfair situation is in preventing workers from organizing and leaving them to negotiate in isolation against an obviously organized ownership.

I am by no means trying to make the argument that unions have not made some bad decisions. Of course they have. Nevertheless, it takes a suspension of reason to leap from this fact to the conclusion that unions should not have the right to exist. Consider that most every type of organization has made mistakes; notably, corporations have routinely made devastating financial and environmental mistakes in only the past few years. Consider also that a union can only negotiate. Thus, every bad deal struck by unions has been a deal struck by bad management. Where are the calls for outlawing corporate organization? There haven't been, because that would be irrational. If one sets aside ugly politics and stops to think, it becomes evident that the same is true for unions.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


when did we start calling comic books graphic novels?

Monday, February 28, 2011

if you think this is over then you're wrong

In a matter of weeks, a new Radiohead album was announced, talked about, released electronically and hotly debated. That all of this happened without a word on this blog shows how much I've neglected this writing. Writing is important and valuable to me, so I will humbly apologize and try to kick start this up again with my thoughts on the new album, The King of Limbs.

Many of you know me as a faithful and loyal fan of Radiohead. In high school, I sought out their 'secret' listening parties in obscure locations around Toronto so that I could hear the new albums just a few weeks before their wide release. I dutifully wore (wear) t-shirts with funny bears on them and smiled knowingly when other fans would subtly acknowledge my rock music credibility. I loved Hail to the Thief. I sincerely believed that Radiohead had not made a single misstep since Thom Yorke jumped into that pool on MTV in 1994. So maybe I was a little crazy. But not too crazy, and not without company in my opinions.

After winning reelection in 2004, George W. Bush memorably said "I've earned political capital and I intend to use it." In many respects, Radiohead have built a career out of attempting to do just this with the 'artistic' capital they've earned from a loyal base of fans. OK Computer was widely heralded as one of the greatest rock albums in a generation almost immediately after its release. From this point on, beginning with Kid A / Amnesiac a few years later, Radiohead went on a tear of repeated reinvention with each new album. Inevitably, rather than scare off fans or critics, the albums were (rightfully) met with wide acclaim. Try as they might, Radiohead couldn't shake off fame or relieve themselves of their accumulated capital. At some point along the way, we all began to take for granted that Radiohead was genius. Indeed, we expected new and illuminating genius each time.

My thoughts, then, should be viewed against these almost immeasurably high expectations.

And with that said.


I thing The King of Limbs is a misstep. Though many songs are growing on me each time I listen to it, I remain somewhat underwhelmed with the album as a whole. (You don't think the band will see this, do you?)

First off, the production on this album is really heavy and quite good. The songs are very layered but sound as though they have a sheen about them. Radiohead, over the years, have really developed superb technical skills in this department. The vertical layering is impressive.

Unfortunately, while the songs are vertically interesting, I think they are lacking somewhat in songwriting and line-- the 'horizontal' aspects of music. So many of the songs-- prominently Bloom and Give Up The Ghost-- are fascinating ideas and kernels of songs but just don't have the arc I'd hoped for. They feel more like snippets than full songs. The songs, and thus the album, generally feel underdeveloped to me. Moreover, on an album with only 8 songs (and their shortest album to date), it is a little frustrating to hear three minutes of Feral. While the instrumental experimental track has become a mainstay of Radiohead albums (Treefingers, Hunting Bears, etc.), it is easier to take on a fuller album. Here it comes across as the ultimate indicator of insufficiency.

With all this said, I want to reiterate that I do like this album, and there are some really strong and beautiful moments. Lotus Flower is rhythmic, exciting and uses Thom Yorke's fluid falsetto in wonderful ways. Codex is gentle and sweet, a Radiohead piano track, if a little simple. Separator is gorgeous in tone, vocals and melody: a really superb song and very strong closer. Unfortunately, placed at the very end of the album, the strength of this track paradoxically serves to heighten the sense that so much more was possible this time around.

Would I have given this album a second listen had some other band released it? Perhaps the question is moot-- a Radiohead album remains a special kind of experience.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

the will to be vegetarian

At the turn of 2011, I went to a local Thai restaurant and ordered a spicy noodle dish topped with grilled salmon. It was delicious. It also marked the very last time that I will eat fish. A little unceremonious, perhaps; it was certainly not the best fish I've ever eaten and this restaurant is not especially well-known for their fish. In some ways, fish's quiet shuffling off the stage of my life was fitting. While I have really enjoyed fish in recent years, it never really rose to a level of prominence or indeed obsession in the way that chicken has at various times.

For those of you who are unaware, I have been on a slow transition to vegetarianism, and I am quickly approaching the end. The only meat the remains in my diet is chicken and in just under a year, that too will come to a close. While I have made perfunctory efforts to reduce the amount of meat in my diet generally, I must confess that chicken still constitutes a substantial portion of my diet. Still, I feel good and confident about becoming vegetarian. The arguments for doing so still resonate within me and feel right. They are predominantly ethical, environmental, health-based and to a lesser degree, cultural.

I think it is important to acknowledge that my decision to become vegetarian is a choice, and as such is a manifestation of personal agency.

Consequently, I always say that I don't or won't eat certain things instead of saying that I can't. Often, I make a point of clarifying this when somebody says something like "Nitin can't eat turkey anymore." Of course I can eat turkey, but I won't. I don't make this correction to be a stickler for correct English usage. I actually think the distinction is important and has implications for the kind of person I want to be.

I grew up occasionally eating a small variety of meats like chicken, fish and lamb, but never ate beef or pork. This was the one place where my parents drew the line and it never really bothered me, so I never thought to push the line. If my friends were eating hamburgers, I would have told them I "can't eat beef." While it was strictly true that I could eat beef at that time (I didn't), it was appropriate to use the word can't because the reasons were exogenous to me.

Of course that is no longer the case. I am choosing to stop eating my favorite food in the world in just under a year. This decision does not come lightly, but I obviously believe it is the right thing to do. So I have made the decision to be better. I am empowered and am exercising informed human agency. I have the ability to do that. And I will.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

resonance and representation on the telephone

When people exchange text messages or chat on some instant messaging platform, the communication feels removed and abstract. We see the words pop up but there is a strong and present understanding that we are perceiving only a representation as opposed to the other person. On the other hand, talking on the telephone or over video-chat feels more real somehow. This should hardly be shocking to anybody reading.

Incidentally, I spend a significant amount of time on the telephone.

A few days ago, I began to think about just how abstract a telephone conversation really is. Of course the representation is far more multidimensional than the plain-text methods of communication mentioned above. Nevertheless, you're not really with the other person. Ultimately, you're engaged with a machine. On the other end, a machine has taken note of what the other person sounds like and your little machine is only following those instructions to coldly reproduce the sounds for you. It's a fine imitation, but an imitation all the same.

Another reason that physical presence is so important, I suppose. To actually feel the other person's resonance when they talk. That human energy, it seems, cannot be replicated by telephones or by ever-increasingly-fast Internet lines piping in video. This has implications for considering the relative capabilities of virtual communities and actual physical communities, right?

Paradoxically, traditional letters offer greater authenticity in many ways. Setting aside the old fashioned charm of receiving one (we all know the feeling), consider that it really comes with part of the writer. The paper and envelope has been touched and handled, breathed upon. The message you ultimately receive carries part of the other person in a way that your telephone never can.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

a thanksgiving letter

28 November 2010

While reading the November 22 edition of The New Yorker, I came across your piece entitled Magical Dinners, exploring your own memories of an immigrant Thanksgiving. I wanted to write to let you know that your writing resonated with me on many levels and I really enjoyed reading it.

When I took your fiction workshop at Princeton (in fall 2004), you would often speak to the effectiveness of employing 'important' details; that is, including details in our writing that advanced the reader's understanding of the characters or narrative. In this regard, the peppering of your essays with the details of how you used to lick different objects for taste is so wonderfully done. The moments are simultaneously senseless and remarkably relatable. Who among us doesn't remember surreptitiously putting our tongue on the bumpy end of a battery and the like as children?

Your stories of asking your mother to make American food struck a chord with me. This phenomenon is, I think, nearly universal among immigrant children. I wonder what it is that causes us to inexplicably beg for Kraft dinner in place of our mothers' rich traditional cooking. You rightly observe the tremendous power that children have to hurt their parents: and given that they are just that-- children-- I suppose it is inevitable that we will hurt our parents from time to time.

When it comes to food, at least, I have been thinking that there is a sense in which our adult lives are given to repenting for the way we treat our parents in our youth. At some point while growing, up we realize with a shock what a culinary treasure we had in the kitchens of our childhoods. For me, moving away from home was what really helped me to appreciate my mother's Indian food more than ever before. Today, I take great pains trying (in vain) to replicate that kitchen alchemy. Beyond culinary matters, too, I think many of us in emerging adulthood try to undo pain we may have caused our parents in our youth.

Just some thoughts.

Incidentally, I also enjoyed reading your essay in anticipation of my first Thanksgiving in a Korean-American household. Among so much else, our dinner included turkey, tofurkey, jeon, and paneer makhani. Cultures came together and the food was almost as delicious as the company. It will be interesting to see how Thanksgiving traditions evolve as increasingly diverse groups of immigrants come of age and as different cultures continue to come together in America. In many respects, perhaps this was a quintessentially American Thanksgiving.

I hope that you are well. I think often of 185 Nassau.



PS - I hope you don't mind that I will likely publish this letter on my blog.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

when right is wrong

By now, one can safely assert that over the past few years, Canada has experienced a disconcerting drift towards the political right.

As a Canadian living in the USA, I frequently engage in the sport of contrasting inherent Canadian liberalism with US conservatism. At times, I even allow myself to feel smug, comfortable with the liberal 'cred' to which I am entitled simply by being Canadian. Recently, however, when I defend Canada's heritage of robust social support structures and multicultural tolerance, I feel like my parents must when they defend an India of their childhood that no longer exists. More frightening, perhaps it may never have existed-- my own flawed memory could be heavily coloured by romantic ideals.

When Martin turned into Harper and Bush turned into Obama, it seemed like the political differences that I (and other Canadians living in the USA) had been so fond of asserting were dissipating into nothing. Admittedly, this conclusion dramatically overstates the case. In spite of all the changes in Canada, our national consensus on issues like health care, gay rights and parental leave to name only a few, are far more progressive than anything currently imaginable here in the United States. Moreover, the recent midterm elections in the USA cast doubt on the staying power of the great Change of 2008. All the same, it saddens me to think we (Canadians) are losing our edge when it comes to progressivism.

The most recent manifestation is the astonishing election of Rob Ford as the next mayor of Toronto. I will take this moment to observe that when New York moved from being governed by Rudy Giulani to being governed by Michael Bloomberg, the city regained some of its lost dignity; Toronto seems to have moved in precisely the opposite direciton with this most recent election. Though one can hardly imagine a Canadian tea party, Ford seems to embody all of the ethos and positions so inarticulately advocated by these groups. For example, Ford bizarrely seems to be vigorously oppose bike lanes. This is a strange position to take in any major city but strikes one as particularly inappropriate given Toronto's historical problems with urban sprawl and with the usually strong Canadian respect for environmental initiatives. He opposed funding anti-AIDS initatives on the grounds that "if you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn't get AIDS probably." This is wrong and offensive in so many different ways! To round out ihs profile, he is concerned about "Oriental people taking over" and has suggested that Toronto stop allowing immigrants to arrive. That one of the most multicultural and progressive cities in the world could elect such an awful person to lead is beyond embarrassing and speaks very poorly to the direction of Canadian political sentiment.

Rob Ford seems so antithetical to everything that Toronto and Canada stands for. I want to write this off as the product of a tumultuous economy and a confusing mayoral race. Nevertheless, this has happened. I really cannot overstate how taken aback I still am by this news. I want to say that this will all be over in a few years, but then I never thought the federal Conservatives would win consecutive races. I continue to believe that Stephen Harper is one of the most uninspiring politicians I have ever seen and I resent that he represents Canada to the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, Canada happens to have had a remarkable few years economically, particularly when viewed in the midst of financial and economic collapses in other markets all over the world. Canada's economy has done quite well, and much of this has to do with relatively open trade policies.

Are Canadian social supports, healthcare, and our multicultural diversity standing in opposition to this economic success? Of course not. On the contrary, these are conditions that provided the human capital to drive this growth. Did the stability of our financial sector have anything to do with the conservative principle of keeping government out of the way? Absoutely not. Canada's financial sector was as robust and resilient as it was precisely because strong government regulations kept the institutions from taking on unmanageable and dangerous levels of risk.

Am I naive or nostalgic in my assessment of Canadian ideals, and am I misguided in observing this rightward drift? I cannot, for the life of me, reconcile my understanding of what Canada is with the fact that Toronto just elected Rob Ford to be their next mayor.

Other Canadians, can you help me out? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Monday, November 1, 2010

the diary of a young girl

Yes, I cried. Yes, I laughed.

Last week, Ania and I took a trip on Metro North to see Molly perform in The Diary of Anne Frank at the Westport Country Playhouse. What a wonderful production! The theatre and its grounds, built in what looks like an old barn, is the sort of community space that channels the aesthetics of a small rural boarding school. Lately, I've been reading about John Cage's premiere of 4'33" at Woodstock, New York and when I picture the concert hall, it looks a lot like this Westport playhouse. As a pleasant surprise, there were free sandwiches, drinks and snacks laid out for all of the guests to eat and drink before the afternoon showing!

Oh, and the show. Wow. I came away shaken and moved. The cast was uniformly superb. The dramatic and emotional intensity that such a story demands was present without any sacrifices in portraying the honesty of Anne's adolescence. Perhaps one of the most psychologically daunting aspects of this story lies in the thought of prolonged and crowded confinement. To convey this from the stage effectively requires a dept feat of dramatic irony since a performance stage is so literally antithetical to the notion of a closed and secret space. This director and cast proved more than up to the challenge. The audience laughed but was far more often (as I think is appropriate) forward in their chairs, shocked and engaged, mouths slightly ajar. This really happened.

The story is, of course, one that is well-known to most in our society. Nevertheless, like all good stories, something new is revealed or discovered with each retelling. For me, what was most apparent watching the play was the sense that my life is a charmed one. At the risk of sounding cliche, we tend to take things like space and mobility for granted. Who among us has been so openly, callously and horrifically isolated for his race or for any other reason. Who among us has literally been selected for extermination. I say these things not from any profound insight, but because we have to say these things. We have to remember and art is one way we can do so.

When I was on a road trip last year, I was involved in a minor car accident. A friend of mine was upset by the accident for most of the trip; I tried to comfort him by reminding him that things "could be worse"-- nobody was hurt, for example. He bristled at my reasoning, noting correctly (to paraphrase) that I could use this logic to argue against feeling bad about most anything. At the time I thought "exactly: that's the point." Now, I wonder: maybe there are times when even this logic cannot stop one from feeling bad. We have the story of Anne Frank, trapped hiding in an attic against a regime that said Jews, you really should not exist. Silence and stillness during the day. Not even allowed to peer through the window. Exasperated, I kept asking myself in the theatre: can things get worse than this?

The wonder of her story is that in spite of all of this, Anne's voice does reflect a measure of optimism and even levity. Certainly, The Diary of Anne Frank teaches us about human resilience. About the nature of family.

But it's tragically about so much more.

And we ought to remember that this really did just happen.

Thank you to the spectacular cast and crew for a moving performance and for reminding me that my life is charmed.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why do we need to lead?

First off, many thanks to NKW for permitting this little experiment. I would have made my first post yesterday but I was out of the house all day to, among other things, watch the really excellent, but dark, Swedish detective movie 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.' Highly recommended.

A post by economist Dean Baker with regards to the dialogue over financial regulatory reform caught my eye recently. He criticized NPR for not presenting a free-trading perspective in a recent piece on the concerns of those who worry that increased regulation of financial derivatives will drive that industry abroad:
There is no more reason for people in the United States to be concerned about buying derivatives abroad than we are about buying shoes and clothes from abroad. If other countries choose to attract trade in derivatives with a more poorly regulated financial system -- implicitly having their taxpayers assume the risk of a meltdown (e.g. Iceland) -- then there is no reason that we should not simply buy our derivatives from these countries and concentrate our production on areas in which we enjoy a comparative advantage. NPR should have included the economist's position in this segment.
This insight struck me, partly because the general issue (the value of having a particular financial product brokered or sold domestically) seems to be present in some of NKW's reflections regarding the frequently proposed financial transaction tax (FTT or a 'Robin Hood Tax') and, indeed, in a lot of discussion regarding the impact of financial regulation in a globalized market. This is different than the, question of how much revenue a unilaterally imposed FTT could raise given the likely diversion of that business abroad. This capital flight factor strikes me as more important in setting the level of a FTT than whether or not to impose it; clearly there are reasons why many consumers of financial goods prefer to buy in hubs like London and NYC and there must be some appropriate level of taxation before deadweight losses and lost revenue eliminate those advantages and start to be counterproductive for society. I do not disagree with NKW that global implementation is preferable or that the taxation of financial goods is a complicated and delicate balancing act.

More generally, what Baker has here challenged is the value we as Americans associate with being the leader in the global financial industry, even as this requires taking on higher levels of risk and, potentially, future bailout costs, all despite the fact Americans might regardless benefit from the financial products offered by a foreign market.

The U.S. perception of the value of a strong domestic financial industry is the subject of a recent post by Ezra Klein (himself ruminating on Tyler Cowen's post critiquing the book 13 Bankers) who hypothesizes that the limiting factor in financial regulatory reform is not the partisan disputes going on now but the degree to which the U.S. government believes it needs a powerful Wall Street (in order, according, to Cowen, to maintain the dominance of the dollar and finance U.S. debt)

I am very skeptical of the degree to which regulating derivatives, granting the feds resolution authority and the other main issues addressed in the current financial reform bills will compromise our ability to finance government operations or jeopardize the American economy. I do see, however, that stronger regulation would be figuratively akin to taking away the punch bowl at the Wall Street party at midnight. I wouldn't personally cry much over more staid domestic financial markets- the major effect might just be that a particular, and not terribly vulnerable, portion of the NYC and Chicago labor pool would have to reinvent themselves professionally. Perhaps the societal benefits to being the leader in the world's casino economy outweigh the opportunity costs and the risk or more thorough regulation (like what Canada has) is incompatible with being an economic powerhouse.? I am interested in other people's general thoughts: In a globalized economy need America have the most lively and innovative financial industry in the world in order to maintain our economic position or way of life? Is the cost of doing this taking on the risk of serious future financial crises that require the use of taxpayer money?

One possible objection to Baker's implicit 'export the risk' argument is that the U.S. could end up bearing the burden of offshore financial crises anyway, through IMF bailouts or domestic economic losses, with less control over the consequences.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


We are going to try something new over the next few weeks on gawking at clouds. My good friend Robe will serve as a visiting guest contributor. I think this will be a really positive experience. You'll get to read more commentary and hear a different point of view from mine. Hopefully, Robe and I will try to engage in public discourse by going back and forth on a few things.

Monday, April 19, 2010

don't worry, chicken curry

I have really enjoyed cooking lately. This is some chicken curry that I made last night.

that karma yoga

Recently, I found myself washing a sink full of dishes for the first time in a long while. Over the past few years, I've grown accustomed to using the dishwasher. So it is that while I will occasionally hand wash a pot or pan after cooking, I load most of my dishes into the dishwasher and press a button. This is easy and it leaves me with time to do other things while the dishes wash. My laundry happens in much the same way. On Saturday mornings, I take my laundry bag out of the closet and walk down the street to the laundromat. I leave my laundry with Ming, leave to do other things (while my clothes are washed and folded), and pick my clothes up a few hours or a day later. When it comes to dishes and laundry, I seem to be coordinating more than doing. I was surprised, then, at how much I enjoyed doing the dishes. I've written before about the ways in which we feel human by doing things, and the extent to which this is lost in an increasingly information-based society. I felt very peaceful doing the dishes. It is one of the few times when I can suspend many of my thoughts and just be in the moment. Friends used to find it funny that I enjoy cleaning the bathroom as much as I do, but it's much the same effect.

Yoga and meditation is in large part about clearing your mind. The cessation of thinking. Stop for a minute and just be. I spend so much time thinking about what comes next, and wondering about big ideas. Meditation requires practice and focus. Perhaps the act of doing something with attention and without analysis begins to approach the same goal. When I am washing dishes, when I am scrubbing a counter, when I am sweeping the floor. These, like an autumn forest, are a chance to be alone with(out) my thoughts.

Monday, April 12, 2010

the story

Call me a retrograde, but I find something very romantic about the idea of traditional journalism. While the world is undoubtedly changing quickly; a friend who is a reporter for Dow Jones tells me that a colleague recently remarked to her that "we are all wire reporters now", alluding to the increasing pace of reporting and publication. Still, the image of a gritty reporter chasing down a story, studying the issues meticulously, and reporting with an active sense of professional pride has salience to me. I read something recently espousing the idea that there is a sort of heroism in the notion that reporters do not merely report facts. In being physically present where the stories happen, they testify to the experience. This grants their reporting a special sort of credibility. We used to demand that our journalists not just know about something, but that they know something. Do we still?

This afternoon, I met a journalist from Mexico City named Jose, and we spoke about the notion of journalism as a craft. While this may seem obvious, it occurs to me that we sometimes lose sight of the extent to which the quality of writing matters. Much of this, it seems, has been supplanted with breaking news alerts, tweets, and the like. While I don't mean to suggest that carefully written stories have disappeared (they haven't), I do think we're paying less attention to them. Publications like the New Yorker help to remind us that writing can, and should be taken seriously.

One story that shocked me with its power is Fatal Distraction, for which Gene Weingarten was awarded a Pulitzer Prize last week. In it, he writes about parents who have accidentally killed their children by forgetting them in locked cars. This is profoundly tragic when it happens, and Weingarten handles the narratives with a stunning amount of sensitivity and grace. The story really sheds new light, emotionally and factually, on this occurrence. Outrage is easy, but Weingarten upends that automatic response and challenges us to engage with the issue in ways that may be uncomfortable. Simply, this is beautiful and moving writing. I really urge everybody to read it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Saturday, February 27, 2010

could robin hood do good?

Last week, Syon sent me a link for a group called ‘The Robin Hood Tax’, advocating a financial transactions tax in the UK and globally. I have been thinking about it over the past week and decided to post some of my thoughts here. I hope some of you will respond, whether here or elsewhere, as we could all benefit from thoughtful dialogue.

To quote directly from the website, the pitch is broadly as follows:
The Robin Hood Tax is a tiny tax on bankers that would raise billions to tackle poverty and climate change, at home and abroad.
By taking an average of 0.05% from speculative banking transactions, hundreds of billions of pounds would be raised every year.
That’s easily enough to stop cuts in crucial public services in the UK, and to help fight global poverty and climate change.
There are a few implicit assumptions underlying the proponents’ line of reasoning. The first is that the volume of transaction in the financial services industry is unnecessarily large relative to the economic activity, and effectively just bloats the financial industry. As I will discuss below, I think there is some truth to this argument, although a tax as outlined must be globally adopted in order to address this. The second is that bankers and their speculative trading were largely to blame for the current crisis, and therefore it is appropriate that they should be punitively taxed. This argument, I think, oversimplifies the issue and has more to do with targeting misinformed public sentiment than in making a thoughtful claim.

Framing and the Fungible

While I believe there is merit in considering the implications of a financial transactions tax, I take exception with the campaign’s framing of the policy. Invoking Robin Hood alludes clearly to the idea of stealing from the rich to provide for the poor. The notion of the fortunate subsidizing the less fortunate in society is nothing new. Most developed nations, for example, have progressive income tax rates (the tax treatment of capital gains and dividends for US investors is a glaring counterexample). A tax on financial transactions may have substantive merit and should be defensible as a natural extension of this philosophy and through appeals to reason. Instead, the focus on vilifying bankers creates an adversarial scenario that appeals more to rage than to thoughtful consideration.

The other aspect that irks me is the false assertion that the revenues produced by the tax will solely serve to benefit domestic poverty programs, social services, and climate change initiatives. These are worthy causes, to be sure. While the framers may legitimately be advocating for this allocation, the reality is that existing commitments to these causes are likely to be reduced. Unfortunately, money is fungible. Governments have revenue and they have expenses. An increase in revenue will broadly impact the amount a government can spend, and is likely to do so across the board. While money from programs can be earmarked to a specific cause, there is always enough money to move around elsewhere in a budget to render this meaningless. Given the amount of discretion available to governments in setting budgets, it is at best naïve (and at worst misleading) to put forth the notion that these new revenues will be strictly additive to the intended programs.

Blaming Bankers

Are bankers solely responsible for the economic crisis, and are they fair targets of punitive measures? Without a doubt, bank share a role in the blame. On one hand, the banks in many cases took on irresponsible levels of risk in order to produce profits. Furthermore, their role in packaging huge amounts of risky loans surely contributed to a global decline in the quality of outstanding credit. When the banks were on the verge of collapse, governments around the world rescued them. Given this eventuality, should we be surprised that they were driven to take excessive risks? It may be unreasonable to expect corporations to act in socially responsible ways, which is why government is so critical to establishing boundaries and rules. In Canada, for example, banks are more heavily regulated than they are in the UK or the US. Consequently, these banks had few of the major problems that were happening elsewhere. Canadian authorities, on these grounds, have expressed skepticism about adopting a financial transactions tax in Canada.

In the case of the risky loans, I would argue that banks were trying earnestly to help society better manage risk. That the models underlying these efforts ended up being seriously flawed is hardly evidence of malicious intent. Moreover, many other agents were involved. Governments that irrationally and excessively encouraged home ownership, and most importantly that failed to adequately regulate the banks. Perhaps most significantly, the high frequency trading most likely to be affected by the proposed financial transactions tax is quite distinct from the securitization markets that were at the heart of the credit crisis. Thus, when the website claims “So it’s time for the people who caused this mess to pay to clean it up.”, it seems misguided.

My point here is that law and policy should prevent banks from being able to make a mess of the entire economy. To put in place a framework that motivates these institutions to act dangerously and to demonize them when they do so seems unreasonable.

Substantively Speaking

A financial transactions tax of .05%, while it may seem nominally small, would have tremendous effects on most traded markets. In particular, businesses that make profit through high frequency trading would be adversely affected. Keep in mind that .05% of the notional value of every transaction may represent a far more substantial share of the profit. With many trading strategies, this would probably eliminate all profit. So while the figure may appear small, the implications are huge. Those engaged in high frequency trading argue that they are providing a service by making markets more efficient and liquid, which benefits companies that use markets to finance themselves. I don’t find this argument terribly convincing. Primary market participants don’t typically have a need to transact at these speeds. The main beneficiaries turn out to be speculators who are involved in the markets to make money as secondary participants. To the extent that their businesses are harmed, this may not be socially problematic.

My substantive critique of the financial transactions tax is that these ends are only met if the policies are adopted globally and across asset classes. This is incredibly difficult to effect in practice. The Robin Hood website bizarrely cites a tax in the UK on stock transactions as evidence of why this idea could be successful. I say bizarrely because the consequences of this policy were a shift of stock trading from London to other markets, and a dramatic increase in the use of untaxed derivatives rather than stocks in London. Sophisticated investors were able to replicate the economics of a stock transaction through the derivatives, thus avoiding the tax. I entertain serious doubts about whether the proposed tax could be coordinated globally and across different types of financial transactions.

I think I’ve written just about enough for now! Thoughts?

Friday, February 26, 2010

food in my neighborhood

fort greene / clinton hill

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

socks like me

The owner pulled up in a Jaguar and came into the building. From where I was working, I could hear him speaking to one of the supervisors. Shortly, he came into our room, with a smile:

"Thought I'd come in and meet the summer hires."
He faced me. "So what are your plans after the summer?"
"I'm going to University."
"Oh, congratulations. Where will you be studying?"
"At Princeton."

A pause. "What are you doing here?"
"I needed a job, and I couldn't get one anywhere else."

On a quiet part of Power Dam Road, in Cornwall, there used to be a sock factory run by Richelieu Hosiery. I had a job working there the summer before I started college. Later, I would convince myself of a narrative that said I had taken the job in order to 'gain perspective' on things, but the truth is just what I told the owner: I took the job because I needed money and it was the best job I could find that summer in Cornwall. I'd been rejected by, among others, the City of Cornwall, a call center called Startek, McDonald's and KFC. This last one particularly stung, as I had been resubmitting my resume almost every two weeks. I'd heard rumors that the employees working the night shift got free chicken at closing time, and I wanted in. I told the local managers about how much I loved KFC, and about how I'd once even written to their head office, but to no avail. Maybe it was a problem with my cover letters, but I spent that summer working with socks.

I performed a variety of different functions relevant to the sock industry. Labeling socks. Sorting socks. Packaging socks. Counting socks. Moving socks from one package to a different package. I came to learn that any number of different sock 'brands' (Nautica, Polo, KMart, Osh Kosh B'Gosh) were exactly the same socks!

The task that I remember most vividly is stretching socks. Most people don't know this, but socks are very small when they are first sewn. They resemble baby socks. How do they reach their eventual adult size? Somebody has to stand in front of a large machine that with a conveyor belt carrying many feet-shaped metal casts. To his right is a board full of unstretched socks. As the belt moves, he has to take the unstretched socks and place them on the hot metal casts, taking care to line up the heel and toes. When the stretched sock comes back around, he has to remove it and place it on a second board for the stretched socks. I spent hours doing this, often burning my hands when I would accidentally touch one of metal casts. Sometimes, I'd put a sock on backwards, and share a conspiratorial laugh with the person working the machine next to me. Stretching socks is, to be frank, one of the most boring things I've ever done.

Motivation aside, working in the sock factory really did help my sense of perspective. It continues to remind me of just how fortunate I am to be in a situation where I can pursue almost any profession that interests me. It elucidates the mental resilience that people who work these jobs have. The thought of spending my days carrying out boring, menial tasks with no end in sight is a frightening one, but thanks to my summer at the sock factory, I can at least begin to imagine it.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I apologize for the dearth of posts as of late. The blog is on hiatus, but I will return with full force in early February.