Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sandhill crane walking slowly right in front of us

Sandhill Crane Walking Right in Front of Us
It seemed to be trying to draw us away from its nesting mate nearby, all curled up in a mound of feathers in the reeds.

View Large On Black

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Two great novels that saw through the myths of Wall Street years before the meltdown

When our financial system melted down I was shocked, but not exactly surprised. I had a sense of déjà vu. It was as if I had seen this plot before, and people were acting like characters in a novel I had read long ago. And in fact, I had. Two novels, actually -- Moral Hazard and The House of All Nations (out of print).

One was written more than six decades after the first, but by some weird coincidence, both were written by Australian women novelists who had spent some time working in American financial institutions -- both as outsiders, women in a man's world. Together, they forever changed my view of high finance.

I reviewed them for the literary quarterly Third Coast long before our financial meltdown. Since the subject is more timely than ever, I thought I'd put a slightly revised version up here.

Moral Hazard
Kate Jennings (hardcover, 192 pages, Fourth Estate, 2002);

The House of All Nations
Christina Stead (hardcover, 787 pages, Simon and Schuster, 1938; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972; out of print)

It's difficult to write good fiction about high finance. The heady brew of greed, testosterone and willful gullibility that so recently bubbled on Wall Street is great potboiler material, but can it be decanted into literary fiction as well?

Two remarkable novels, Christina Stead's The House of All Nations and Kate Jennings' Moral Hazard, suggest that serious fiction can succeed with this material, although most novelists seem happy to concede the terrain to journalists and talking heads.

Both books are by women novelists writing about a traditionally male bastion. Both are Australians with no financial experience who worked for several years in American investment banks, Jennings some sixty years after Stead. Maybe it helps to be an outsider.

"Nobody ever had enough money," says Jules Bertillon, the central character in Stead's 1938 masterpiece, one of the best novels ever written about the world of finance, a sprawling, panoramic epic based on the American investment bank Stead worked at in Paris during the early thirties.

The title reference is to an upscale brothel in Paris patronized by the bankers and their clients , and that pretty much catches the tone of this sardonic comedy of manners. Stead memorably dissects the human follies that link financiers and their clients, as well as the market forces that seem to drive unregulated financial systems toward ever greater excess, and ultimately, chaos.

No one who read The House of All Nations would have been surprised by the recent financial meltdown. Unfortunately, it’s quite a slog for most readers -- 787 pages crammed with now obscure historical references and often stilted dialogue. But if you can find the time and patience to immerse yourself in Stead’s world and let it wash over you, you won’t be sorry -- and you’ll never look at the “financial industry” the same way again.

Kate Jennings' view of the New York investment banking world of the nineties is more impressionistic and concise, runs only 175 pages, and is written with a poet’s precision of language. Moral Hazard is more personal than The House of All Nations, more autobiographical, and more contemporary in every way. It also pursues a more risky narrative strategy.

The protagonist, Cath, is a feminist, a veteran of the radical politics of the sixties, and an admitted financial idiot: “I could barely tell a stock from a bond. Balancing my checkbook was beyond me, much less understanding option trees.” Her husband Bailey is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she needs money to pay for his care, and a friend finds her a well-paid job as a speechwriter for a prominent investment bank.

Although Jennings herself -- a poet and author of one other novel, Snake -- did go to work on Wall Street to support an older husband with Alzheimer's, that's mere biography. Moral Hazard is a novel. It succeeds or fails as a novel, not a memoir. In the end, she's likely to win you over, with her language, her impeccable sense of pitch and her engaging, tough-minded tone. We can identify with the protagonist, and her outsider status makes her all the more effective a mole for the rest of us in as she burrows into “a firm whose ethic was borrowed in equal parts from the Marines, the CIA, and Las Vegas. A firm where women were about as welcome as fleas in a sleeping bag.”

The novel spans six years and is made up of two intertwined, complementary narratives. Each concerns a failure of memory -- Bailey’s on the one hand, the banking industry’s on the other. Bailey’s cognitive decline is told with sensitivity and skill. The bankers are sketched deftly and colorfully. Bailey’s crisis ends in death. The banking industry’s crisis almost blows up the entire financial system, although the perturbation scarcely is noticed by the general public and nothing really changes.

“To date, no follow-up. Nothing. Nada. As if afflicted with Alzheimer’s, the Fed [Federal Reserve] remains adamant that banks can police themselves,” Cath muses after the collapse of a hedge fund modeled on Long Term Capital Management. The spectacular demise of LTCM in 1998 was an eye-opener for industry insiders, but after a bailout arranged by the Fed it was quickly forgotten. “Deregulation rackets along like a runaway train, banking lobbyists clinging to its side, climbing into the cab, waving from the windows, hollering in their exhilaration. Hoo-ha.”

One of Cath’s bosses liked to check if she had been paying attention by asking her at the end of a meeting, “Now, what’s our take-away?” The reader’s take-away from Moral Hazard is a powerful, frightening metaphor about Wall Street and the failure of memory.

And that title, Moral Hazard? That's the term for the tendency of individuals who are insulated from the consequences of their greed and recklessness, either by insurance or by government, to -- guess what -- go right ahead and indulge their greed and recklessness. Moral hazard was at the heart of the near disaster in 1998, and since nobody seemed to learn from it, at the heart of the much worse meltdown a decade later. And as Stead and Jennings remind us, it's not as if there weren't warnings. Will we learn now? That remains to be seen.

Finding some spots of bright color at Lake Wingra on a gloomy, rainy afternoon

Bright Colors on a Rainy Day
No matter what the weather, I like to walk down to Lake Wingra, that quiet, tranquil bit of nature on the near west side of Madison. It's surrounded by so much parkland and UW Arboretum green space that in the right light it can look as unspoiled and deserted as some lonely lake in northern Wisconsin. It was raining heavily when I trudged out with my umbrella, and I was glad I was wearing waterproof boots, since Wingra Park was starting to turn into an extension of the lake. Don't know what I expected to find. A loon diving in the rain, perhaps?

Bright Colors on a Rainy DayBut all I found was pelting rain and a deep, wet sense of gloom. Even the birds had given up and taken shelter. No loons to be seen. No ducks or geese, either -- they all seemed to have disappeared into the witness protection program.

Bright Colors on a Rainy DayBut there were a few spots of bright color, just glowing in the general gloom. Wingra Boats had started bringing their canoes and kayaks out of winter storage. The rain seemed to have varnished the boats with a fresh coat of lacquer, their colors were so intense. I couldn't help but aim my camera in their direction, as the rainsdrops ran jaggedly down their sides.

I've been photographing Lake Wingra for a long time, revealing many different moods of this little lake, in all kinds of weather and every season. I recently put some of my favorites into a slideshow on Flickr. If you're interested, click this link.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Dyslexics using the iPhone as a reading aid

Interesting piece in the Guardian by a dyslexic who found the iPhone changed his life. He got an e-book app for his phone and loaded it up with classic novels he had never read because they were too intimidating. In a week he had paged right through the 1,000-page The Count of Monte Cristo. How did the iPhone help?
So why I had found it easier to read from my iPhone? First, an ordinary page of text is split into about four pages. The spacing seems generous and because of this I don't get lost on the page. Second, the handset's brightness makes it easier to take in words. "Many dyslexics have problems with 'crowding', where they're distracted by the words surrounding the word they're trying to read," says John Stein, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University and chair of the Dyslexia Research Trust. "When reading text on a small phone, you're reducing the crowding effect."
It also turns out that he isn't alone.
I was so impressed that I contacted the Dyslexia Society, where Sue Flohr, herself dyslexic, recounted how her iPhone had changed her life. She told me that many others share my experience reading books and the society is in talks with the government over making school textbooks available as eBooks. Flohr said that her iPhone has not only brought greater organisation to her life, it has greatly improved her sense of self-esteem. I share this sense and now see that when I proudly show off my iPhone to others it is not just a new bit of technology, but the centrepoint of my newly ordered life.
Wonder if it has had a similar impact on Steve Jobs, not only the inventor of the iPhone, but long rumored to be one of the world's most successful dyslexics. (Via Maud Newton)

NYT story on Conan O'Brien spawns #helpingconan hashtag thread on Twitter

This line in today's NYT on Conan O'Brien's emergence as an online personality, which helped him sell out his 30-city comedy tour that starts next week, caught my eye.
Assisted by his executive producer, Jeff Ross, and personal friends, Mr. O’Brien signed up for Twitter in late February.
I mean, how hard is it to sign up for Twitter? It's not exactly brain surgery. What part did Conan need assistance with? The typing?

Apparently I wasn't the only one. There's a new hashtag thread on Twitter -- #helpingconan -- in which people add their own ideas on the help Conan needs to navigate the rigors of daily life. It seems to have started with this tweet by Roger Ebert.
Conan's executive producer "assisted" him in signing up for Twitter. His director tied his shoelaces. #helpingconan
Time will tell whether this has the legs to go viral, or whether it burns out quickly and remains nothing but a thread in a teapot.

Monday, April 05, 2010

When it comes to gay and lesbian marriage, Iowa works. Wisconsin, unfortunately, does not.

Joey and Gabi, Married at Last
Joey and Gabi, whose relationship bridges the Atlantic, were married Friday in a magistrate's office in Dubuque, Iowa. They are so clearly in love, and it was a moving experience for those of us lucky enough to be there to see them make this commitment to share their lives. (Click on the photo above to go to Flickr if you want to see links to more wedding pictures.)

Iowa WorksAfter the wedding, we took a photo by this sign because the headline seemed so appropriate. Gay and lesbian marriage has been legal in Iowa since August, 2007. If this led to a decline in moral standards or any of the other ill effects feared by opponents, it sure hasn't been visible. While Wisconsin recognizes civil unions, that's not the same. Wisconsin, sadly, banned same-sex marriage by constitutional amendment in 2006.

Worst of all is the situation in regard to same-sex marriage and immigration. While Joey and Gabi's marriage is recognized in the UK, Canada and most of Western Europe, it doesn't work the other way around. Married to a European, Joey can work in the European countries that recognize gay marriage, but it's impossible for Gabi to live and work work in the U.S. as she could if she had married a guy. The (ironically named) 1996 Defense of Marriage Act prohibits federal recognition of same-sex marriage, which is interpreted as including immigration. Currently, an estimated 60,000 couples are caught in this dilemma.

U.S. immigration policy is in need of many reforms. This should be high on the list.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Seasonal storefront window art by Caldecott award winning author and his wife

Seasonal Window Art by Caldecott Award Winning Author and His Wife
Happy Easter!

You may have noticed this seasonal art brightening the storefront of Neuhauser Pharmacy on Monroe Street in Madison, or other scenes in a similar style for other holidays. If you have young kids in your house, the art may look curiously familiar.

There's a reason for that, as I found out when I looked more closely to see whether the hand-painted art mural had been signed. It was. And it turned out that the artists were award-winning children's book author and illustrator Kevin Henkes and his wife, also an illustrator, Laura Dronzek. And when I asked in the store, I found out they had painted other seasonal murals as well. Pretty cool -- not every pharmacy has its windows graced by the work of a Caldecott award winning children's book artist.

The mural is charming and repays a closer look. It's really a three-dimensional relief painting. The bunnies and chicks in the foreground are cutouts that stand out from the background scene. It's a very distinctive, stylized form of illustration, more sophisticated than it seems at first glance, and which has brought the couple considerable fame and success in the world of children's books.