Monday, December 30, 2013

But the Green Light Is at the End of Spring Road

3625 16th St. NW, the apartment building once known as The Ricardo, is getting a new name:


As far as I can remember, F. Scott Fitzgerald's only connection to the area is his grave, in the churchyard of St. Mary's, about a dozen miles from here in Rockville, Maryland. And I don't really see how "Gatsby living" works here, The building is in a very convenient location but not at all a glamorous one.

There are other apartment buildings with writer's names attached, directly or at second hand. Directly, there are the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments on 15th St. NW at about V St. At second hand, there are the Longfellow Arms on Longfellow St. NW, and Whittier Gardens, bounded on the south by Whittier St.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

At the Movies

"Inside Llewyn Davies" struck me as Hieronymus Bosch brought to the screen, the torment of a damned soul by imps including fat women (from the Upper East Side and the Ozarks), fat men (from Seafarers International Union and from the jazz world), urban dirtbags, and pale people from the sticks. It struck me also as a waste of brimstone, for the main character seemed to be armed for no sins but rudeness and sulking. He is said in the film to have impregnated a couple of women, but he has no obvious charms to attract them. He has regular features, a good beard, and a decent voice: still, in the Greenwich Village of 1961 these can hardly have been rare. For that matter, the one of these women that we see projects no sensuality, though of course--this is the movies--she is beautiful, and she does deliver a few minutes of vituperation with some conviction.

There is a nice touch in the matching scenes at beginning and end. Given the rest of the movie, they recalled the Last Judgement painted inside the dome of the cathedral in Florence: one can start at a punishment, follow the action around 360 degrees and return to it

Friday, December 27, 2013

Stendahl on Scott

An immense body of men of letters finds it in its own interest to praise Sir Walter Scott to the skies, together with his method of composition. The doublet and leather collar of a medieval servant are easier to describe than the movements of the human heart. One can either imagine or describe inaccurately medieval costume (we have only a half-knowledge of the customs and the dress worn in Cardinal Richelieu's ante-chamber); whereas we throw down the book in disgust if the author fails to describe the human heart, and ascribes, say, to an illustrious companion-in-arms of the son of Henry IV the ignoble sentiments of a lackey.
... it is infinitely easier to describe in picturesque detail a character's dress than to say what he feels and to make him speak. Let us not forget another advantage which is offered by the school of Sir Walter Scott: the description of the costume and posture of a character, however minor he may be, takes at least two pages. The movements of the heart, which to begin with, are so difficult to discern and so difficult to describe with precision and without either timidity or exaggeration, would scarcely furnish a few lines. Open at random ten pages from on of the volumes of La Princesse de Cleves; then compare them with ten pages from Ivanhoe or Quentin Durward; it will be found that the latter display a historical merit.
Stendahl, "Walter Scott and La Princesse de Cleves", collected in Selected Journalism 

I have recalled this passage a number of times, while watching movies in which the clothes, uniforms, and props are beautifully done, but the dramatic soul seems to derive from the TV shows of the producer's youth, or from the movies he studied in film school.

(Stendhal seems to me entirely correct in speaking poorly of Scott's depictions of love. But the prediction that "In a hundred and forty-six years time, Scott will be less esteemed than Corneille still is a hundred and forty-six years after his death." I have no way of evaluating, for what was Corneille's reputation in 1830? Scott's novels have nothing like the popularity they had through the 1850s, but I think have held up at least as well as those of any novelist then writing in English, Jane Austen excepted.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Epstein on WASPs

Friday's Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein, praising the old eastern WASP establishment as against today's meritocracy. I fault his argument for manner, matter, and maker.

Manner: Epstein uses a flexible, not to say sophistical definition of WASP that allows him to exclude Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton:
WASPs were a caste, closed off to all not born within it, with the possible exception of those who crashed the barriers by marrying in.
Well and good, but he lists Dean Rusk, born to modest means in rural Georgia. Carter was born to landed wealth and received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academ;. Rusk worked his way through Davidson College. He lists George Kennan, born to comfort but not riches in Milwaukee--married as it happens to a Norwegian. He lists Robert MacNamara, born in modest circumstances in California, and with a distinctly Irish name.

Matter:
true WASPs were too upstanding to go in for the unscrupulous business dealings of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.
Or rather, they had inherited it from an ancestor who had managed the unscrupulous dealings for them. Was John D. Rockefeller more scrupulous than the elder Kennedy?
or the feckless philanderings of him and some of his sons
With all due respect to JFK's track record, this is ridiculous. Can philandering be more feckless than when it leaves a man dead in his mistress's bed (Nelson Rockefeller) or on the sidewalk outside her apartment (Adlai Stevenson)? What of the vestryman J.P. Morgan?  Should a spy run around quite so much as Allen Dulles did?

More to the point, what of their stewardship? Henry Cabot Lodge was not a benign influence on American foreign policy. Who is there now that believes that John Foster Dulles's foreign policy was sensible? The New Frontiersmen led us into an engagement in Vietnam that such downmarket southerners as Richard Russell and Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of. They had second thoughts, but by then Johnson was stuck with the war.

Then there are the obiter dicta on the meritocracy:
the only thing that normal undergraduate schooling prepares a person for is... more schooling.
It is the premise of the liberal arts faculty that undergraduate schooling prepares one for a good deal more. I am confident I went to a worse school and got a a worse education than Epstein, but I did learn a thing or two.
Having been a good student, in other words, means nothing more than that one was good at school: One had the discipline to do as one was told, learned the skill of quick response to oral and written questions, figured out what professors wanted and gave it to them.
That is a different matter, isn't it? We could rephrase the first sentence as "The only thing that a normal undergraduate transcript establishes is that student's fitness for school." The argument then verges on tautology.

Finally,

What our new meritocrats have failed to evince—and what the older WASP generation prided itself on—is character and the ability to put the well-being of the nation before their own.
Well, what if you can convince yourself that your well-being and the nation's are identified? Most of us, with more or less effort and conviction can say something like that now and then; no doubt it is easier if you own a fair bit of the nation as some of these WASPs did. The harm may come from honest error as easily as from self-interest. You might decide the austerity, even deflation, is the proper answer to a depression; that you, as an owner, have only to gain by deflation need not imply insincerity in your views.

Maker: I am not acquainted with Joseph Epstein's biography, but I'm fairly confident that given four guesses I could name the college he attended, and it would not be Davidson College. His mother may have believed that this had nothing to do with his early employment in publishing and in helping him to find a publisher for his first books. I see no reason to believe it. He holds no employment in the government of the United States, nor does he work in the finance industry; other than that, and age, I see small difference between him and the meritocrats he complains of. Well, maybe one--I do believe that he writes his own books, and I give him credit for that.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cars and Tires

In Will's Boy, Wright Morris gives some pages to a trip from Chicago to California  in 1927. He and his father began with an Essex, purchased used for $125. This lasted them to Springfield, Illinois, where the knock of a bad bearing could no longer be ignored. They sold the car for $60, and took buses to Kansas City, Missouri. There they purchased a 1921 Studebaker for $165, recruited some paying passengers, and set out. On the grade down to the Missouri River, the gearbox fell off. The Morrises immediately swapped this, as is, for a 1919 Buick. The Buick, though not the passengers, lasted until a missed curve in the California desert, where it stuck in the soft sand.

The car purchased for the return trip, a Marmon, took them to Lake Village, Arkansas, where it dropped its transmission. There was no time to consider repairs or a trade in, for it was almost at once swept away in the great Mississippi flood of 1928, when the levee broke upstream. Along the way it required a great deal of improvised tire repair--fitting an old tire, its bead removed, over a flat one--and it cast its right front wheel near Deming, New Mexico. To be sure, they had done a good deal of driving over mule tracks early on the trip.

The cars made since about 1980 tend to be hard to break. Before that, it helped to know a lot about cars, or to know a good mechanic. A friend of my father's chipped in with some friends to buy a used car for the trip back east from a field camp about 1950; they traveled with spare parts, and when a piston shot out through the hood they were ready to replace it. The late 1940s or early 1950s may have been the nadir of auto quality, for civilian production had been suspended for WW II, and only so many American could afford new cars.

Tires have improved a great deal in my memory. Beginning the January after I got my driver's license, I averaged a flat tire a month through August. I was the better prepared, then, when on a summer job I changed a flat tire on a company car, let down the jack, and saw the spare go flat. In the last twenty-five year I recall  changing two flats our cars, one holed by a screw from the Metro construction on Georgia Avenue, one cut by a granite curb at Connecticut and California.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Amazon Reviews, Again

I am a few pages from finishing a pretty bad novel. Yesterday, I found myself thinking of Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper:  He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly." The anachronisms are plenty, the inaccuracies striking, the dialogue often implausible, the plot obvious.

Then I looked at Amazon. In round numbers, there are 1600 reviews with five or four stars, 100 with three or fewer. The ratio of five stars to one star is a bit more than 100 to 1.

It is possible to read by passing one's eyes over the pages, taking in the sense of the words, and perhaps remembering the sense but not at all reflecting on the matter read or referring it to anything beyond the piece read. For reading in this manner, I suppose that the book serves well enough, and deserves its rating. There are elements of the fairy tale in, the families lost and found, which can be moving.

It is also possible to think as one reads, and notice that the author seems not to know that Philip Sheridan was an American general, not an English one; that it was Irish, not British, troops that captured the Four Courts; that in 1943 English speakers called the city Rangoon, not Yangon, and that in any case Burma had only a distant relationship to the Central Pacific theater of operations; that near the mid-century natural childbirth was not popular among the prosperous; that train wheels, pace Tennyson, do not run in grooves; etc. Reading in this fashion, one sides with the one-star voters.

Had I the time and energy, I would write a script to collect Amazon ratings for a range of books, to see how my evaluation of quality correlates with a reasonable number of low ratings. Maybe over Christmas.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Snow Day

Snow started to fall about 8 this morning. I think that it began to turn to sleet around 2:30. While it lasted, it added to the festive look:


(The lionesses at the corners of the bridge that takes 16th St. NW over Piney Branch Parkway got their ribbons last week, but no snow until today.)

The snow meant that I could run through the Zoo without dodging or inconveniencing its visitors; probably I saw fewer than twenty other persons in the Zoo, walkers and runners counted together.It did not affect the footing, though.

The statue of Nelson Mandela that stood on an unfinished pedestal at the South African Embassy has been moved forward to the edge of the sidewalk and placed on a higher, temporary platform. People have put flowers on it. I don't run with my phone, so I have no picture to offer.



Friday, December 6, 2013

Terminals

One of the first technical books I ever bought was The RS-232 Solution. It dealt in a clear way with the details of data transmission over serial connections, and in those days I dealt with such connections a lot. The book told me what I was looking at when I opened the cover on a connector, put me on the path to understanding how to use a breakout box, and saved me, my employer, and our customers a great deal of time.

Then I changed jobs, and the details of serial cables were no longer my problem. But presently I spent a lot of time looking at the details of "terminfo" and "termcap" and considering how to make this or that type of terminal behave when connected to this or that type of computer. I believe that I invested in the book Terminfo and Termcap, but perhaps not. I did manage to make some off-brand terminals behave better than they might have.

Then I changed jobs again, and really didn't spend a lot of time thinking about terminal emulation. On the whole, I didn't miss it.

This afternoon, I wasted several hours of my time and a tech support rep's. First, I wasted a few minutes of my own looking for the proper cable--null modem, female and nine-pin (or if you will, nine-socket) at both ends. Then I wasted the hours because I could not get a machine to boot into the proper system,. This was largely, as far as I can tell, because the terminal emulation program was throwing away or otherwise mis-handling my keystrokes. This machine wasn't manufactured--I don't suppose its manufacturer was incorporated--when I last looked at terminal emulations.

I will add that when I first dealt with RS-232, 9600 Bps was considered a fast connection. WiFi can in theory do roughly 700 times that. In other words, for every second a web page takes to load over a good WiFi connection, it would take about twelve minutes at 9600 Bps. I remember the author of The RS-232 Solution writing of 200-Bps connections "but in those days it seemed like magic." Indeed.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Lives of the Saints

This may be the week or month for African and African-descended (St. Martin de Porres) saints at the Sacred Heart Academy building on Park Road, NW. Two got crayon-colored cutouts on the bulletin board, two, Sts. Monica and Augustine, had small pages cut out of some booklet, each page having a drawing and a brief write-up.

I was interested to notice on St. Augustine's the sentence "Partier when young." I couldn't fault that on the facts, but it seemed a strange way to put it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Airport Bookstores, Again

In September, I complained about the uniformity and lack of selection in airport bookstores. I am happy to report that Portland International Airport (PDX) stands out as an exception, having branches of Powell's Books either side of security. The one outside security was staffed when we arrived about 8 pm; the one inside security on Concourse C was staffed when we were waiting to board our return flight about 7:15 am.

Should have I bought books on each passage to encourage the business? Perhaps, but on the way in, I expected to have a chance to visit the main store downtown; on the way back, I had with me the books from that visit.