Saturday, October 31, 2020

Nice profile of Matt Levine in the NYT

As anyone who's spent more than 15 minutes with me knows, I think that Matt Levine is the best writer on the Internet.

Not just the best writer on finance, the best writer, period.

Levine manages to educate, entertain, and explain all at once. Moreover, he actually makes you want to learn more about finance. Which isn't something that you ever thought you wanted, but once you've had a good solid dose of Levine, you'll want to learn more and more and more about how finance actually works and how people across the world use its basic tools to come to agreement on all sorts of things.

So, anyway, I loved this nice profile of Levine that ran in the NYT a few weeks ago: A Columnist Makes Sense of Wall Street Like None Other (See Footnote).

Each weekday, Mr. Levine, 42, wakes up at 5 in the morning. He looks at what’s going on in the markets, scrolls through emails from readers and plugs into the chatter of early-to-work traders. Then he starts to write. Roughly 5,000 words later on a long-winded day, he files Money Stuff to his editor, and it’s sent to subscribers around noon. (His column is currently on a parental leave hiatus, and will return this winter.)

Mr. Levine’s favorite subjects include insider trading statutes, bond-market liquidity and the ubiquity of securities fraud, but his columns are never boring. They may be the only entertaining words a financial markets professional reads all day.

Levine's family has been growing, and he's been taking some (well-deserved) breaks, but you can find lots of his back catalog on the Internet, and hopefully he'll be back before too long helping to make sense of our crazy world for all his hundreds of thousands of followers. Me included.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Wesley So is the new US Chess Champion for 2020

Here's the scoop, direct from US Chess: Wesley So Is 2020 US Chess Champion After Crushing Performance

So kicked off the title event with five consecutive wins and never looked back, finishing undefeated plus-7 with an astounding 9/11 score. That high-mark result has only been topped twice in U.S. Championship history, both times by Robert James Fischer.

This is pretty well-known by this point, but it's been quite interesting to watch the sport of chess evolve over the last few years, accelerated of course by this year's COVID situation.

So earned his new title as America’s player-to-beat from his bedroom in Minnesota, after playing in the national championship event organized online by the Saint Louis Chess Club. This year’s crown tournament, which collected 12 of the best U.S. players, was adjusted because of COVID restrictions and featured all games with a rapid G/25+5 time control.

Chess is thriving across the planet, with nearly-universal world-wide popularity, and tremendous players from the Far East, the Pacific Islands, and Southeast Asia joining existing chess communities from Europe and North America in online tournaments enabled by the Internet.

Chess also is attracting young players of phenomenal talent. This year's entrants in the US Championship were aged: 17, 19, 19, 25, 26, 26, 28, 30, 32, 32, 35, and 36.

And, of course, there are some spectacular games available to replay and enjoy! You just gotta love the game between So and Xiong in round 9 which decided the championship.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

One Good Turn: a very short review

For no particularly important reason, I dropped into Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels at book two: One Good Turn

It took me a while to realize that Atkinson follows, at least partly, in the Donald Westlake/Carl Hiaasen/Janet Evanovitch tradition of crime fiction, in which whodunit is certainly part of the goal, but really the sport is all in the malarkey along the way, with eccentric characters at every turn and plenty of mishaps, stumbles, and bumbles on all sides.

It's the sort of book where you get lovely, yet head-spinningly bizarre, passages like these:

"Inspector Brodie," the man said, stepping forward and shaking her hand.

"An inspector calls," Gloria said. She presumed he was a fraud officer, but didn't they hunt in packs? He followed her into the living room. She wished she had kept him on the doorstep, like a Jehovah's Witness. All these unwanted visitors were an unwelcome distraction from the international banking fraud that Tatiana was committing in the kitchen, overseen by Gloria's red KitchenAid and Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course.

"Tea?" Gloria offered politely, trying to remember if he had shown her any ID. Where was his warrant card? He was saying something about road rage when Tatiana glided in from the kitchen and said, "Hello, everybody," like a poor actress in a farce.

Don't get me wrong! This is the sort of breezy reading that I adore, and I drank up every page of Atkinson's absurd story with joy. Set during a random running of the Edinburgh Fringe, the entire book unfolds in 7 chaotic days of nonstop round-the-clock action, and features a missing laptop, a housing-bubble-based organized crime ring, an aging cat, and a play-within-the-play:

The play, Looking for the Equator in Greenland, was Czech (or maybe Slovakian, Jackson hadn't really been listening), an existentialist, abstract, impenetrable thing that was about neither the equator nor Greenland (nor indeed about looking for anything).

One Good Turn suffers a bit from the old problem of "if a little bit is good, a lot must be better". There are too many characters, too many sub-plots, too many absurdities, too many half-developed thoughts tossed into the mix. It's a little bit like that person who thinks that if vodka and tomato juice seem to work well together, why not try adding bacon-wrapped shrimp and some cauliflower?

But that's really just a quibble; this is what you expect from this sort of book, and the reader is gratefully aware that, if one chapter seems to have gone just a bit too far into the deep grass, then simply turn a few more pages and something else will come along.

From what little I know about Atkinson, she had tried her hand at various other fiction categories for a number of years before writing Case Histories and inventing the Jackson Brodie character.

And then discovered that what she had thought was a one-book detour was actually her passion; she's up to five Jackson Brodie novels already, with the most recent one published just a few months ago.

I may just have to try a few more.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Ekranoplan destined for a new museum

I'd never heard of an ekranoplan (my bad).

But I dug these reports about the 35-year-old curiosity/relic and how it was recovered from the Caspian Sea:

  • The 'Caspian Sea Monster' rises from the grave
    Beached on the western shores of the Caspian Sea, it looks like a colossal aquatic beast -- a bizarre creation more at home in the deep than above the waves. It certainly doesn't look like something that could ever fly. But fly it did -- albeit a long time ago.

    After lying dormant for more than three decades, the Caspian Sea Monster has been on the move again. One of the most eye-catching flying machines ever built, it's completing what could be its final journey.
  • Watch: The 380-Ton ‘Caspian Sea Monster’ Plane Emerges From the Water for the First Time in 30 Years
    Furthermore, by taking advantage of an aerodynamic principle known as “ground effect,” it could seamlessly glide over water without actually touching it. This is a nifty characteristic of all ekranoplans, a.k.a. ground effect vehicles, which skim the surface of the water at a height of between 3 feet to 16 feet. This makes them difficult to detect by radar and perfect for seaborne attacks. The mammoth aircraft could even take off and land in tumultuous weather while facing waves of up to 8 feet.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Beautiful essay in the NYT about what we lose when we are alone

I was very struck by this passage in a beautiful essay published in the paper about a month ago: Is It Strange to Say I Miss the Bodies of Strangers?:

In the way that absence illuminates desire, and breakage illuminates function — you don’t notice the doorknob until it twists off in your hand — quarantine has made it plain to me how much I miss the daily, unspoken, casual company of strangers, the people whose names and lives I’ll never know, who populate my ordinary urban days with their bodies on the subway, their glances on the sidewalk, their stray comments at the A.T.M., their hands holding whole milk and gummy bears in front of me in the bodega line.

It was in the early months of my separation that I started to become acutely aware of this gratitude for the peculiar anonymous company that urban living offers — for the cafe just downstairs from my new apartment, where many of the same regular customers gathered each morning: the amiable elderly man chain-smoking and mansplaining trans-Atlantic politics; the mom-friends with their parked bassinets; the 20-something boys reading Bakhtin and Heidegger who never offered to help me carry my stroller up the stoop stairs. In the aftermath of my household unraveling, it was an acute and unexpected comfort to find this daily ragtag cohort just downstairs — a looser household, but a household nonetheless.

Walking late at night on Flatbush Avenue, I appreciated all the anonymous strangers I passed for the ways they suggested, even if I didn’t know their stories, how many different ways it was possible to craft a life. The man buying mangoes at the bodega just before midnight? Maybe he was a father of five. Maybe he was a single father of five. Maybe he and his husband were trying to adopt. Maybe he and his wife had been trying to have a child for years. Maybe he and his wife knew they didn’t want a child; maybe they were saving up to travel the world instead. Maybe he lived alone with his aging mother. Who could know his story? I never would. But I didn’t need to. I only needed to know, through his presence on that sidewalk, that so many plotlines for a life were possible.

When we lose the ability to live among the bodies of strangers, we don’t just lose the tribal solace of company, but the relief from solipsism — the elbow brush of other lives unfurling just beside our own, the reminder of other people’s daily survival, the reminder that there are literally seven billion other ways to be alive besides the particular way I am alive; that there are countless other ways to be lonely besides the particular ways I am lonely; other ways to hope, other ways to seek joy.

"So many plotlines for a life."


Marvelous article.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Enemy Women: a very short review

I cannot get enough of Paulette Jiles.

This summer I read News of the World; this fall I read Enemy Women. I cannot think of two finer books with which I could have occupied those rare few hours when I sit down to read.

Enemy Women is set in Southern Missouri during the Civil War, and tells the adventures of Adair Colley, a young girl living with what remains of her family on the family farm in rural Missouri. In the space of just a few days, the farm is destroyed, the family is scattered, and Adair finds herself in jail, held as a prison by the Union forces in an attempt to force her to give up secrets about the Confederate activities in the Ozarks.

Harrowing adventure after harrowing adventure proceeds, as Adair confronts and surmounts one obstacle after another, supported by little more than her treasured horse Whiskey and a fiercely burning desire to survive.

And somehow, unlikely though it often seems during these episodes, Adair does more than merely survive; she comes through her experiences realizing that what she and Whiskey have witnessed is not just a cataclysm, but perhaps a new beginning:

The next day Adair woke up to a clean sky and the sound of Whiskey devouring the new bluestem grass nearby. She sat up in her blankets. Whiskey dropped down to his side and rolled over and wallowed on his back, his feet swimming in the morning air. He jumped up and snorted and shook himself. The forests of the Ozarks had never been cut, so the yellow pine and oaks were sometimes fifteen feet around at the base. They stood far apart from one another without underbrush, and it was good traveling then, through the greening world. At the seeps and springs, there were banks of violets and fern, sweet williams and miniature wild irises whose flowers were no bigger than a person's thumb and two fingertips held together. Wild pansies looked up with lion faces, the shadows of the new leaves were faint as the shadows of an eclipse.

At the next ridge south of Mungar's was an open prairie of grasses of several acres. It was what the people called a barrens. Adair could see for a long way. The hills poured out southward, one after another. The wind tore at her hair and she felt herself lifting like a kite. She stood for a long time to listen for the sound of a mill wheel or a church bell, or foundry or circle saw squaring logs, the ringing of an anvil.

The hills were silent. She stood listening for a long space of time. There was only the long wind singing off the top of the receding ridges and their heavy forests.

It seemed all the people were gone. Soon there would be some other world and some other people to take their place. The grasses on the little barren seethed in the wind with their new seed-heads, and the wind was chill, and so they went on as the road drove downhill toward the main fork of the Black River.

The seventh day of slow traveling found them up and moving by dawn. It was very cold that morning, for it was yet early in April and she wore the Zouave jacket and the down quilt over her shoulders on top of it. They followed the road as it swung along a steep hillside in a oak forest. They were southwest of Iron Mountain, and she had no idea what was the name of the road.

I love this vaguely biblical ("seventh day of slow traveling") passage, and its lyrical, eloquent telling of how harsh change is yet intertwined with the continuity of life. I love the graceful placement of human change within its natural setting ("good traveling then, through the greening world"). I love the way Adair feels with all her senses ("see for a long way", "hills were silent", "wind tore at her hair", "thumb and two fingertips", "devouring the new bluestem grass", "lifting like a kite", "swimming in the morning air"). And I love how the passage packs an cosmological eternity ("a long way", "a long time", "a long space of time") into an instant of recognition of the change that had come upon her: "she had no idea what was the name of the road".

In an afterword, Jiles describes how writing Enemy Women was an attempt for her to imagine what might have happened with her own great-great-grandfather, who lived in the Missouri Ozarks during the Civil War but whose full story has been lost to time. The Civil War seems like a dusty old relic at times, but obviously it remains a crucial element of the country's history and development, and really, it is not so long ago: consider this remarkable observation from blogger Jason Kottke that virtually the entire history of the country can be spanned by just three generations:

Last weekend, Lyon Gardiner Tyler Jr. died at the age of 95. Remarkably, Lyon was the grandson of John Tyler, the 10th President of the United States. His brother Harrison Ruffin Tyler is still alive.

Jiles's Civil War is vivid, and immediate, even if she recognizes that most of what she depicts, and most of what anyone can in fact depict about the war, is the cloudy convoluted result of untold vaguely remembered tales:

She would not sleep in the tavern, either, not in any place, not in the kitchen or the woodshed but went to the barn instead with a wool U.S. Army blanket taken from Jessie's stores and slept in the barn loft over Whitkey's stall. Listened to him grind up the corn in his great molars, got up often to look and see if he were down or still standing on all four feet. For more than a week he stood with his leg drawn up and moved with great difficulty.

Still the men came. They slept in the mill loft or came to sit on their heels in front of the tavern. Many sat under the eaves and watched the rain come down, and some came in and looked at the shelves and said nothing, for they had nothing to spend. They listened to the June rain.

They talked in low voices among themselves and then there was laughter, for they were telling stories. They were making their past lives now into tales, and they were exchanging the tales so they could go and tell not only their own, but also others', and somehow this would make a sort of thin, fragile text or texture that might give way and might not, might hold, might be raveled out and be gone forever.

I love Jiles' stories, her own and those of others, and I would say that her text is certainly not thin or fragile, but rather does not give way and should hold. Adair proves to be fierce and resilient, and is (or should be) a heroine for the ages. I hope Enemy Women still finds new readers like me, decades after it was originally published.

Although it was far from her first book, Enemy Women was the book that brought Jiles her breakthrough success. Enemy Women was published when Jiles was 59 years old, but in the 20 years since then, she has certainly not slowed down, publishing five more best-sellers, including this year's Simon the Fiddler. I won't get to that one immediately, though; I've still got several more to catch up with first.

Thank you, Ms Jiles: I'm looking forward to reading many more of your wonderful books!