31 January 2008

Telling a story

What's a story? What does the word mean?

If you go to a dictionary, you might find it defined as a narrative. Then you might find "narrative" defined as a story.

We get closer to the heart of the matter with a definition like this: "The plot or succession of incidents in a novel, poem, drama, etc."

Succession. That's the key word there. A story is something that unfolds in time.

The simplest way of telling a story is in chronological order. Select the "incident" with which you wish to start, then tell what happened next, and so forth, until you get to the last of them. Notice that I didn't say "start at the beginning." An incident is the beginning of a story because the teller starts there. He doesn't start there because it's "the beginning" in any objective sense. Or he'd have to start every story with the Big Bang.

Also, there's the equally troubling matter of where to end. If you wish to write about the French Revolution -- do you end with the execution of the royal family? the fall of the Jacobins? or do you keep going until, say, Napoleon makes himself Emperor? A dozen other possible stopping points might have suggested them to you already by now. But of course if we think of history as a chain of cause and effect, there is no natural stopping point, short of "and then you read this sentence, ending with the word 'sentence'!"

All of this is only to make the obvious point that no matter how simple and unaffected we seek to make the structuring of our stories, they'll be what they are because of our aesthetic decisions. The decision to seem "simple and unaffected" might be one of those.

I'm thinking these matters through because I'm stuck on a literary project of my own, my "causes of the civil war" novel. I wrote the first draft, which still sits on the top shelf of my desk, in chronological order, beginning with Daniel Webster's famous speech on the nature of the Union, in January 1830. I kept writing -- sometimes about historic events, sometimes about the lives of characters I had invented -- following the order of the calender until I came to the firing upon Fort Sumter.

Now I think some non-chrono re-structuring will be required to kick-start the project.

30 January 2008

Chapter Five

This will conclude my reading of the Nicky Marsh book. Her final chapter involves the portrayal of women within the financial world in contemporary Brit fiction.

One of the novels featured here is Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It (2002). A footnote tells us that Miramax bought the rights to this novel, in the hope it would prve the next Bridget Jones' Diary.

Bridget Jones, though, was an assistant at a book publisher. Pearson's protagonist Kate Reddy, is a hedge fund manager. She has a rather grandiose view of what it means for a woman at the start of the 21st century to manage a hedge fund, thinking: "We are the foundation stones and the females who come after us will scarcely give us a second thought but they will walk on our bones."

The book doesn't have a lot of the detailed accounts of particular trades that get into the sort of "financial thrillers" Marsh discussed in her fourth chapter. Not only doesn't it contain many such passages but, as Marsh puts it, the book "resists" such passages.

"The real dramas in the novel occur not around the fluctuations of currencies or stocks but around the blurry definitions of care and responsibility that economics place upon the people who drive Reddy's car, wash Reddy's clothes, and, most crucially, look after her children."

So (to wrap this up) a bankers life, or a hedge fund managers life, can give rise to drama and literature, just so long as one takes it as a life. And not just as a matter of staring at a screen, or supervising people who stare at screens.

29 January 2008

Chapter Four

Continuing my reading of the Nicky Marsh book.

In chapter four, Ms Marsh turns her attention to works she evidently considers not-very-literary, low brow potboilers. These are the finance world's equivalent of John Grisham or Tom Clancy.

She says that there was a "rash of novels" that applied thriller conventions to the world of finance not long after the arrest of Nick Leeson at Frankfurt Airport in March 1995.

The resulting novels seem to be read largely by people with connections to the finance industry themselves, and to be read as if they're in code, in an effort to dope out who or what is the story-behind-the-story. One such author, Paul Kilduff, posts appreciative reader e-mails on his website and Marsh quotes a bit of that.

"Is your story really based on true facts? If yes, could you indicate to me a web site where I could access the information you used to write your novel? All I recognized was the LTCM bankruptcy in the first part of the book."

His readers have an eye for detail, and want to be helpful, as shown by other examples Marsh quotes. "And in HK the main MTR interchange is Admiralty not Central...the DAX is not the name for the German Stock Exchange. It is the name for the German counterpart of the Dow Jones," and so forth.

If this makes any one curious to see that website, feel free.

Just Click Here.

28 January 2008

Chapter Three

Continuing my reading of Nicky Marsh's book.

But chapter three, she's narrowing her attention to issues more akin to those that inspired me to request a review copy of the book in the first place. For this isn't about literature and attitudes toward hoarding or the exchange rate -- this is about Brit lit and attitudes toward "the City," the financial district of London.

One of the books prominently featured here is "What a Carve Up!" by Jonathan Coe (1994). This is very much a pomo novel. Its about a novelist, Michael Owen, which is always a good post-modern start. Michael has been hired to write the history of a particular eccentric family, the Winshaws. Increasingly, Michael's research uncovers ways in which the Winshaws' lives intersect with his own, so that he becomes central to his text.

One of the objects of that research is Thomas Winshaw, a banker. Through Michael's eyes, then, Coe describes Thomas' obsession with computer screens and the visually self-enveloping character of his work in the City.

Thomas, who supervises traders, installs a camera so he can stare all day at a screen that shows "nothing but row upon row of his traders, themselves staring at screens ... It seemed, at such moments, there was no end to the glassy barriers which he could put up between himself and the people (did they really exist?) whose money formed the basis of each day's intoxicating speculations."

This reminds me of last week's news out of France. Of course a superviser who followed Thomas' methods would never have found any harm in Jerome K's dealings. He would simply have seen that Jerome came in on time each day, sat at his desk, stared at his screen, and pressed buttons on the keyboard.

At any rate, on the evidence of Marsh's quotations from Coe, I have to credit the latter with at least that one arresting image of the work life of one sort of banker.

27 January 2008

Chapter Two

Continuing my reading of Nicky Marsh's book.

By chapter two, we're done with Mr. Fleming and into a period one can describe as "contemporary British fiction" without blushing. We're into the Thatcher area anyway. Malcolm Bradbury was an important figure in the letters of that time and place, and March devotes a good deal of attention to Bradbury's 1983 novel, RATES OF EXCHANGE.

The plot of RATES involves a cultural exchange program between the UK and the small eastern European country of Slaka. Angus Petworth is the Brit academic who travels to Slaka in hopes of coming to understand what "Afghanistan and the Reagan hard line, the failure of detente and the collapse of SALT" mean for Europe's east-west relations.

Here we get to the reason why the book belongs in Marsh's survey. The currency speculators Petworth meets in Slaka are prostitutes. Or, rather, the prostitutes are currency speculators.

"Petworth looks at the swinging legs along the barm and sees that Marx was right; beneath each leathered shining super-structure there in an economuc infra-structure," the sole of each book bearing a "chalked hieroglyph."

Yet given the complexity of "rates of exchange" the pricing of sexual services as on the boots is ambiguous. There are five different rates of pounds to Slakan money involved, so that Petworth learns that some time with any one of these entrepreneurs could cost him anywhere from the price of a round of ale, to the price of a three-piece suit.

Actually, though, they aren't entrepreneurs. They're state employees, and they make their "real money" from pillow talk -- from going to the Police with any information they get that might be of interest thereto.

Marsh says (and, so far as I understand the jargon, I gather this means that she disapproves) that Bradbury is adopting "money's more persistently misogynistic and mystifying narratives rather than [interrogating] the new political possiobilities demanded by [the] moment."

So it isn't Bradbury's narrative? It's money's narrative?

26 January 2008

Money and Fiction

I've received the book I mentioned in my January 10 entry, "Money, Speculation and Finance in Contemporary British Fiction."

It isn't what I thought it would be. It's both broader in scope and more theoretical. Still, it has passages of interest.

In the first chapter, which is apparently intended to provide historical context by reference to not-so-contemporary British fiction, we get some discussion of Ian Fleming and the Bond novels.

At the start of the novel GOLDFINGER, our protagonist 007 is being entertained by an American millionaire named Du Pont, who wants Bond to work privately for him, investigating a man whom he suspects is cheating at cards. This man turns out to be Auric Goldfinger.

In wooing the famous spy, Mr. Du Pont provides him with a sumptuous meal, which Fleming describes in depth. Sweet shellfish, dry toast, the "slightly burned taste of the melted butter," champagne with the "faintest smell of strawberries," and so forth.

Bond is put off by this display of conspicuous consumption. "Suddenly the idea of ever having another meal like this, or indeed any other meal with Mr. Du Pont, revolted him."

Of course, Bond does expose the Goldfinger card scam, and that serves as a prelude for their more world-shaking conflict to come. But Bond can't bring himself to keep the money that Mr. Du Pont has paid him for this service.

Now: what's that all about? We have to abstract from the Hollywood movie Bond, who doesn't have the puritan streak of the character of the novels. But Fleming is clearly creating some distance here. Not just between the UK and the US, but between Bond and the world that he works to rescue.

Goldfinger represents two sorts of threat -- the political/military one, from the Soviet empire with which MI and the CIA were both jousting -- and the threats posed to the Du Ponts of the world by hoarding. Fleming's novel presumes the Keynesian idea that capitalism requires that consumption be stimulated, that too much saving/hoarding is a threat. (Bond gets a briefing on this from an official with the Bank of England, and the Bank is described as having a spy system of its own.) Goldfinger's vast reserves of hidden gold themselves represent a threat, the Keynesian world-view's analog to the cheating at cards that allows Bond to trip him up early on.

But, back to the clams, toast, and champagne. Bond viscerally (slight pun there) recognizes Du Pont's consumption as a vice, just as in the line of duty he recognizes Goldfinger's hoarding not just as an opposite vice but as a deadly threat to the world he's protecting. His job is to protect Du Pont from Goldfinger -- but he doesn't have to like it.

By the way, here's a 21 year old joke. What do you call a 20-year bond issued in 1987?

Wait for it....

James, of course. [Maturity in '007. Get it?]

25 January 2008

Nobody Knows Nuttin' : Latest Proof

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we can understand some of the volatility of the world's stock exchanges in recent days.

The US markets were closed for M.L. King's birthday on Monday, but the rest of the world's exchanges took steep dives. Then when the markets in the US re-opened on Tuesday morning, they started sharply lower, regaining some of the lost ground as the day went on. On Tuesday, again, sharp loss in the morning, this time with a firm rally in the afternoon -- regaining more than had been lost -- ending the day above Friday's close.

What was going on? There was no dearth of explanations. It involved bond insurers, liquidity problems, jobs statistics, reactions to developments in the US presidential campaign. Phases of the moon and the death of Heath Ledger were only rarely invoked as explanations, but were on standby.

Meanwhile, though, in Paris, officials of that country's second largest bank, an institution that has been around since the era when Paris was briefly run by the communards, were desperately trying to close out the positions of a rogue trader who had lost about 5 billion euros of their money.

The timing and the scale both look right for this to be cause and effect. The Société Générale employee, Jerome Kerviel, had been making huge unauthorized and very speculative trades, and had evaded the bank's risk-management controls by hacking its computer system. Its an old story, though it seldom happens on this scale. Trader hopes to cover his initial losses by doubling down. Heck, if I just lost $100 on a coin toss, I should bet $200 next time, shouldn't I? I could win my money back and still book a gain. If I lose again, so my losses are $300, I can always bet $400 on the third try. Lose again, bet $800. Sooner or later, I've got to win.

Well, no. There is no law of probability that guarantees that even a talented hacker can dig himself out of such a [w]hole. The losing streak can continue until your bankroll is gone.

In this case, it continued until he tried something fancier than usual in his hacking, and raised red flags. Bank officials questioned him throughout the day Saturday.

Monday ... well, you know the rest. Extreme volatility on all those non-US markets. The bank made no official statement on the matter until yesterday, Thursday.

Still, the incident proves that markets are hard to fool. You can fool some of the traders some of the time, and your bank bosses for a long time, but world markets figure it out and start to mark prices down accordingly.

This is why nobody knows nuttin. Even the brightest of us is just a single neuron within the brain which is the world financial market as a whole.

24 January 2008

There Will Be Blood

I saw the movie There Will Be Blood last weekend.

The plot is straightforward, and kin to that of The Aviator or Citizen Kane. The protagonist in each of these three cases is an entrepreneur, and we see him overcoming various obstacles in order to build a thriving business and get himself a large mansion.

But in movies of this sort we're also supposed to get a sense of vast human costs intertwined with that success. We end up with Hearst/Kane dying alone in that mansion with the name of a childhood toy on his lips. Or, in The Aviator, with Howard Hughes so imprisoned by his various obsessions that he can't enjoy his victories in the marketplace. There is an analogous ending here, which I won't give away.

The point I have to give away, though, is that we feel the loneliness of the big mansion Daniel Plainview comes to own, a mansion that may have been inspired by one he saw as a kid back in Wisconsin, but one surely on a far grander scale, with enough room for its own bowling alley. We were allowed along the way to enjoy the sheer force of will, the human energy, that force that laid the pipeline to the sea, the pipeline that the Standard Oil honchos thought the protagonist would never be able to build. He built it, by gum. But we feel the hollowness at its end.

This movie makes abundant reference to the biblical resonance of brotherly struggle. Esau the ruddy hunter, and Jacob, his (barely) younger brother, the studious fellow who "dwelled in tents."

There are two distinct brotherly rivalries at the heart of this movie. On the one hand, there are two brothers (played by the same actor) in the Sunday family, which owns land that the Oilman needs for his derrick.

On the other hand, there are (or might be) two Plainview brothers in the movie, and their relationship is foreground just when that of the two Sundays is background.

In short, I loved this movie.

20 January 2008

American Pastoral

I finally broke down and bought a Philip Roth novel.

I keep hearing how wonderful he is. All I can say in reply is that I read "Portnoy's Complaint" once, and was underwhelmed by it. But I figured I owed him (Roth, not Portnoy) another chance.

Also, my uncle and aunt (bless them) got me a coupon for use at any Barnes & Noble as a Christmas gift this year. I used most of the value of the card to buy a non-fiction book on a subject that of course holds some interest for me but that will be unlikely to warm up any entries in this blog. So I inferred I should cut loose and use the remainder of it for something more literary.

So ... Roth it was. I bought a paperback copy of AMERICAN PASTORAL, a novel published eleven years ago.

I was the managing editor of a journal of political polemics at that time, and I edited a rave review of this book. [To be frank, I took a passage in a letter from a friend and turned it into a review with a little editing, but ... hey ... let's just say I edited it.]

Early on, Roth (or, rather, Nathan Zuckerman, the famous author who serves as the first-person narrator) recounts the plot of a novel he read as a boy called THE KID FROM TOMKINSVILLE -- a novel about baseball and a particular baseball player. We can't credit Roth with the plot. There really was such a book:


Yet the way Roth writes about the book, its illustrations, and Nathan's reactions to reading that book as a kid is a thing of beauty itself.

Here's just a bit:

"The drawings seemed conceived out of the dark austerities of Depression America. Every ten pages or so, to succinctly depict a dramatic physical moment in the story -- 'He was able to put a little steam in it,' 'It was over the fence,' 'Razzle limped to the dugout' -- there is a blackish, ink-heavy rendering of a scrawny, shadow-faced ballplayer starkly silhouetted on a blank page, isolated, like the world's most lonesome soul, from both nature and man, or set in a stippled simulation of ballpark grass, dragging beneath him the skinny statuette of a wormlike shadow."

You gotta love it.

19 January 2008

Springfield, Mass.

The Wall Street Journal gives prominent play in its weekend edition to the financial troubles of Springfield, Mass.

Springfield received a coat of red ink two months ago when its financial adviser, Merrill Lynch, informed it that the city's stake in three CDO portfolios had been marked down. That stake had been worth $13.9 million as recently as July. But by November, Merrill valued it as worth less than 9% of that, or $1.2 million.

City officials are ticked off about this. And they aren't blaming themselves. They aren't kicking the furniture in their office while saying, "Dang! There we go making investments of taxpayers' money without doing proper due diligence and ascertaining the risks first," and offering to resign in disgrace. No ... any such reaction has as yet failed to make the news.

Instead, the broker is obviously to blame. The story quotes Christopher Gabrieli, chairman of the city's Finance Control Board (i.e. the guy who should be doing the mostdamage to his foot whilst kicking that furniture right now) saying: "I believe Merrill Lynch is responsible and will be obliged, in the end , to restore the city's money."

Here'ssome background on Mr. Gabrieli.

Another bigwig at the Finance Control Board (though I gather his name goes below Mr. Gabrieli's on the org chart) is Stephen P. Lisauskas, the FCB's executive director. According to a story in the Springfield Republican today, a member of the city council has charged that Lisauskas is a personal friend of an agent at Merrill Lynch involved in this choice of investment, Carl J. Kipper.

From what I can tell, the councilman seems to be straining at a scandal but hasn't found anything. It isn't illegal or unethical for friends to do business together. If the friends have fiduciary obligations, and they let their personal ties get in the way of fulfilling those obligations ... there is a problem. But we haven't seen that yet.

The bottom line, for me, is that Springfield's finance officials give all indication of being responsible adults who made rational though risky decisions. I don't think they have recourse against Merrill, nor do I think the council has recourse against them.

If you can't run with the big dogs, stay on the porch. You'll find the concise Latin tag for that sentiment among the labels for this post.

18 January 2008

Same guy: Does it matter?

Here's a clip from YouTube that purports to deconstruct the "focus groups" that Fox has been usingYouTube.

It has gotten a lot of attention recently, beginning SFAIK on January 6 when Mickey Kaus mentioned it on Slate, thanking "emailer WB" for sending him the clip.

The link available via Slate no longer works for some reason, but the one above should.

Anyway, Luntz -- the pollster/market research maven responsible -- has replied that the guy singled out for the repeat appearance isn't a paid actor, and that he (FL) does make a practice of re-using people from earlier focus groups, with a 20% veterans to 80% newbies ratio.

Accepting that it is standard practice for Luntz, is it equally standard in the opinion-measuring industry in general to use 20% repeats? Why would that be a good idea? I have no ideas on the subject and am open to instruction.

17 January 2008

Who is the "Minor Royal"?

I'm usually happily clueless about this sort of thing, and apparently I'm months behind the curve.

But let's gossip about our mother country's royals. Dominick Dunne, in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, writes from London. He has a lot on his mind: the divorce proceedings of Mr. McCartney, the revival of inquiries into Princess Diana's death, and so forth. Rather buried in all this is a blackmail case.

Apparently, a "minor royal" was the subject of a blackmail attempt in the summer of 2007. I gather that the adjective "minor" indicates not his age but that there is some safe distance between him and the nuclear family of the Sovereign.

At any rate, the laws of the UK prohibit the mentioning of his name, though this hasn't kept people from talking. The story has it that a video exists of the (male) minor royal engaging in a sex act with another man, an aide. It also shows the aide, not the royal, inhaling cocaine. In a nice touch, the coke was apparently provided to him in an envelope bearing the royal insignia. So there's the hint, at least, of the solicitation of sex for drugs.

Minor royal went to Scotland Yard about the blackmail, and undercover detectives set up a meeting with the possessors of said video tape in a hotel room. They posed as discreet intermediaries for the minor royal (not much of a pose, since that is in effect what they were). When money was mentioned, the detectives made their arrest.

Dunne also recounts that the name "came out on the Internet and in the Australian papers in a graphic, detailed report."

But Dunne doesn't provide it.

Okay, I'm curious. Not so curious as to do a lot of work on it, but mildly curious. So I went to the webpage for the first Australian newspaper to come to mind, the one aptly named The Australian, and I entered "cocaine blackmail royal" in its search engine.

That yields nine stories. I've just been sampling them, and it appears The Australian isn't naming names either. It names the two blackmailer defendants. But not the compalinant.

It plays a bit of a process-of-elimination game, though. "Neither Prince William nor his brother Prince Harry were involved." Whew.

Anyway, that's as much research as I'm going to expend on the matter. Vastly more than it warrants, surely.

13 January 2008

The Marist Institute

Amongst prominent pollsters discussed in news accounts during election years, there is always the name of Lee Miringoff, identified as the founder of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York.

I have done a certain amount of bragging over Miringoff's increasing prominence in recent years, because I was there at the founding. The "Institute" had its origin in 1978, which of course wasn't a presidential election year, it was the mid-term election of the Carter administration. The polling was an extra-credit project for a few of us under L.M.'s direction that fall.

So I've also experienced chagrin this week as the Marist Institute has come under a rather harsher spotlight than usual. Along with every other polling operation, Marist had Obama leading Clinton quite comfortably as New Hampshire Democrats headed for the polls Tuesday morning.

The combined wire services story that came out of that debacle and that ran in my local paper had a headline quite on point: "Big Loser in N.H. Race: The Pollsters."

But pollsters are human, and like all humans, can use a periodic lesson in humility. Consider (since this is Sunday) the wedding feast that Jesus describes according to Luke, chapter fourteen. Its a lot better to place yourself with due modesty at the bottom of the table than to place yourself at the front.

12 January 2008

Welcome China's Money

In November I wrote an entry in this blog about sovereign funds, in connection with what I saw as an amusing editorial lapse on the part of The New York Times.

Click here.

As a refresher: these are what the name suggests: pools of capital amassed by governments in countries where revenue exceeds government operating expenses, generally managed by a quasi-public authority.

The issue underlying that little chuckle at the Times expense, though, wasn't all that compelling to my mind. It took a while for that to change.

Later in November, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on the subject, "assessing the economic and national security implications" of such funds and their investments in the U.S. After all, at least on first blush, such a fund's managers would act for political reasons. They've got no significant "bottom line" contraints such as private sector hedge funds or banks, wherever they might be headquartered, do have.

Evan Bayh chaired the hearing. That is a straw in the wind right there. Evan Bayh is the fifth ranking Democrat on the committee. When the fifth ranked chairs a hearing on a subject, that subject clearly doesn't yet have a high profile on the national radar screen.

And in his opening remarks, Bayh did his best impression of a high-wire walker at the circus. On the one hand this. On the other hand that. Let's find the right balance. Okay, and let's yawn on cue.

Click here for his scintillating opening statement.

So ... the Banking Committee hearing did nothing to make the issue seem worthy of a close watch from yours truly.

But then in December, (on the 10th) Judge Posner discussed it at some length on his blog, a vent he shares with professor Becker. I came across Posner's comments only this week, and they are -- as the best of Posner's writings often is -- both logical and counter-intuitive. I love it.

Here's a quote:

"[The] purchase of assets by foreign nations, even when they are hostile or potentially hostile to us, does not threaten U.S. welfare or security. The purchase of a company from its owners places money in the hands of those owners that they can invest for a higher return--if they did not think they could do this, they would not sell the company. So such a purchase is wealth-enhancing. It does not undermine our national security just because the purchaser is a foreign government, but on the contrary enhances our security because the investment is a hostage. It's as if to guarantee China's good behavior the president of China sent his family to live in the United States."

This week, the GAO has acknowledged the receipt of a request from a Senator to look into various questions about sovereign wealth funds and their interests in major US institutions. We'll see if Posner's view (call it pragmatic complacency?) gets a public airing as a result.

11 January 2008

Money, Fiction, and Dentistry

I enjoyed Henry's comment to my entry yesterday.

He said that there might be other occupations that would be even more challenging to a writer/dramatist than finance. There might, for example, be dental hygiene.

The comedian/actor Steve Martin has appeared as a dentist (though not as a dental hygienist) in two movies. He was the first sample of human plant food in "Little Shop of Horrors," (1986) and he played a much more sympathetic dentist in "Novocaine" (2001).

The key plot devise of the latter film was that since dentists have access to sedatives and narcotics with a street value, they are a plausible target for con artists -- in this case, involving the seductions of Helena Bonham Carter -- with the goal of obtaining materials for sale on the street.

At any rate, Henry's question was implicit. A lit-crit book about fictionalization of the world of finance does suggest that fictionalizing that world is a challenge, but it also suggests that its a worthwhile challenge. Why is it worthwhile? more so than the dental hygiene?

My own first take on the subject involves the whole question of managing other people's money and the fiduciary responsibility that entails. A mutual fund manager ought to be a boring sort of person -- I want him to be a bore. I don't want to put my money into a mutual fund and find later that its leadership consisted of gambling addicts.

But that latter possibility presents obvious opportunities for drama, much like that famously explored by Dostoyevsky.

10 January 2008

Money in Fiction

I've e-mailed a publisher, Continuum, and asked for a copy of a new book, MONEY, SPECULATION AND FINANCE IN RECENT BRITISH FICTION, by Nicky Marsh.

It's a great subject for a book. When you encounter a character in a work of fiction who is identified as a banker, or as the CEO of a company, the identification often serves merely as a lazy tag, a slightly more specific way of saying "rich guy."

Some occupations just seem to naturally give themselves to literary or dramatic treatment better than others. Trial lawyers (barristers, not office-bound solicitors) are an obvious example. They win or they lose. Their client gets the jackpot or is left destitute. On the criminal side, the client walks free, or is locked up.

Journalism, too, lends itself to literature. The 1928 Broadway comedy The Front Page continues to be re-incarnated. All The President's Men doesn't work very well as an explanation of what was going on in the Nixon administration, but it does make for a good yarn about two reporters' efforts to find out what was going on -- a different theme altogether.

Then there's the occupation of soldiering, which is rather too easily dramatized. It has famously been described as days of tedium punctuated by moments of horror. The temptation, in writing about it, is to leave out the days of tedium and write about the moments of horror. The really great authors in this field can make fine prose out of the days-of-tedium aspect of the situation as well.

What about finance? speculation? fictionalizing the nitty-gritty of it while preserving the drama is a challenge, and this I presume is what drew Marsh: the meta-challenge of describing that challenge.

06 January 2008

Never Enough

I'm following up my post of Friday about Joe McGinniss and his new true-crime book, Never Enough.

One of the questions I'm left with here is: so what ever happened to the Bank of China deal? It's a loose end that a more careful author (even one without my job or obsessions) might have tied.

For McGinniss makes a good deal of fuss about it. The victim of the murder at the heart of the book, Rob Kissel, is a distressed-asset expert for Merrill Lynch, posted in Hong Kong.

Distressed assets are what the term suggests. Bonds from bankrupt corporations qualify, for example. Of course, such a bond might become a worthwhile asset over time, as the corporation is restructured. The bonds might be paid off, or might be transformed into equity, in the next incarnation of that corporation. In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, "you gotta know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em."

So it was an important matter for Kissel that, in 2003, the Bank of China -- an institution, I am told, that has one of the most impressive skyscrapers in the Hong Kong skyline -- decided to fold in this game. It announced an auction of its portfolio of distressed assets.

How much to bid? That was the question for Kissell and his team at Merrill. His right hand man in putting the bid together was a fellow named David Noh.

On the very day that Kissel was to have taken part in a crucial conference call about this auction, his wife fed him the infamous drug-laced milkshake and did the rest of the dirty deed. She then hid the body in a rolled-up carpet, and started calling people, telling them that her husband was missing.

So for a short period, this was a missing-person's case. But David Noh was aware early on that Kissel didn't simply take off on a whim. He wouldn't have missed that conference call as the Bank of China deal was coming to a head unless something terrible had happened.

And so it goes. I'll spare you the melodrama, except to come back to the point with which I began. Why doesn't McGinniss tell us what happened to the B of C deal? Did Noh and the rest of the team at Merrill pull themselves together and proceed without him? Which institution ended up getting the B of C's distressed debts?

Nothing more. I'll see if I can contact McGinniss and ask.

05 January 2008

The Iowa Caucus

Despite my feeling of philosophical detachment, I admit I retain what one might call an anthropological interest in the internal politics of the two major parties of the U.S.

Allow me, then, a few words about the caucus this week, amidst all the noise of celebration and dismay.

On the Democratic side, the results amount to less than may meet the eye. Yes, they weakened Senator Clinton, because some of her appeal had been the sense of inevitability itself. And one can't keep the cloak of inevitability around one's shoulders while coming in third. In anything.

Still, its at most a flesh wound. She still has money, organization, a famous name, and the promise of reviving an era to which many Americans already look back with fondness.

If Edwards had come in first in Iowa, I would have written the above two paragraphs just as I have. But I would have added on to them, without scare quotes, something like this: "and she's also a woman, which gives her campaign a let's make history together appeal that Edwards frankly can't match -- her sex and her insider status together making for a formidable inside/outside combo."

But Edwards didn't come in first. Barack Obama did. And he can certainly match the "let's make history together" appeal, so in the present circumstances she can't count that as one of her assets.

Still, there are only three candidates who count right now on the Democratic side. The rest are dropping away. Triangular debates might be a better show than the over-crowded ones we've so far seen.

On the Republican side, I think the rise of Mike Huckabee is an amazing story, that might make the proper chronicler -- if there's a Theodore White at his side -- ecstatic.

But we should remember that the ethanol lobby has veto power over any Republican caucus efforts in Iowa, and we should inwardly congratulate Ron Paul and John McCain. Each took a principled stand against ethanol subsidies, and each effectively punted this caucus as a result. On to New Hampshire and the rest of the country, folks!

04 January 2008

Joe McGinniss

I just bought Joe McGinniss' latest book, NEVER ENOUGH.

McGinniss is best known as a "true crime" author: more highbrow than Ann Rule, but with lower brows than Truman Capote.

McGinnis' contributions in this area have come with two-word titles: adjective noun.

There's been: Fatal Vision, Blind Faith, Cruel Doubt.

Never Enough is a bit of a departure there. The number of words is right, but its "adverb adjective" this time. The unspoken noun is "wealth," which is modified by "enough" which is modified in turn by "never."

The gist of the book is the "milkshake murder" in Hong Kong in 2003. A very prominent investment banker -- Robert Kissell, one of Merrill Lynch's expat American stars in east Asia -- was bludgeoned to death by his wife, Nancy Kissel, nee Keeshin, after she had first secured against the possibility of resistance, feeding him a milkshake filled with sedatives.

McGinniss' books follow a consistent pattern. An apparently "perfect marriage" is in fact riven with conflict and hatred, unbeknowst to the outside world. Suddenly, one spouse is dead, and the other seeks to blame outsiders/intruders or write it off as a mysterious disappearance. But investigators tear apart that effort, get to the truth, and the murdering spouse is convicted.

That pattern would have made McGinniss a natural chronicler of the OJ Simpson case, but for the acquittal -- which is never the ending he wants.

If I find anything extraordinary in this book, I'll let you know here.

03 January 2008

William Joyce

Sixty two years ago today, the Brits executed William Joyce for treason. This is a bit of history now largely forgotten, but Lord Haw-Haw was once as famous a radio personality as, say, Tokyo Rose.

At his trial, Joyce had sought to argue that he hadn't committed treason against the crowmn because he had never been a subject of the crown. He was born in New York City in 1906, and his father was a naturalized US citizen.

The family soon moved to Ireland, and Joyce went off to university in England in 1921, and stayed. He became a fascist in 1932, and deputy leader of the British Union of Fascists two years later.

In August 1939, shortly before war was declared between Germany and the UK, Joyce left the latter to live amongst fellow true believers in Nazi Germany. To get the passport necessary for this move, Joyce falsely claimed Brit nationality.

Let's skip past the radio broadcasts themselves. We should mention that Joyce became a naturalized German citizen in September 1940. The now-infamous Haw-Haw was captured by British soldiers while trying to sneak across the northern border of Germany into Denmark, in May 1945.

At his trial, the prosecution had to rely entirely on events between the outbreak of war and September 1940. After that, the defendant had aligned his citizenship with his ideology. But even before that ... whose citizen or subject was he? As I noted above, he raised his trump card at trial -- one can't betray a loyalty one never owed. He was never a subject, thus he wasn't a traitor.

"Ah," the prosecution replied, "but you pretended to be one, to get your passport."

The prosecution said that the possession of a passport entitles the possessor to the protection of the sovereign by whom it was issued as he passes through various ports. Thus, Joyce in accepting such a passport had placed himself in the debt of the crown, and was guilty of treason against said crown for his subsequent broadcasts.

It was on that basis that he was hanged on January 3, 1946, after giving a final defiant speech about how the Jews "caused this last war," and he was sorry for the "sons of Britain who have died" without knowing that.

Its a pathetic story of delusion but Joyce got the ending he probably wanted. He got he chance to say his last words on the gallows and to feel martyred as the executioner slipped the rope around his neck.

What if his defense had prevailed? would he have rather have lived on in obscurity as the fellow who used to be Lord Haw-Haw?

01 January 2008


Here we are again, and here are the two faces of Janus. It's time to come to terms with my resolutions for 2007, and how I did or didn't do. Then to launch the new ones.

Last year at this time I wrote as follows:

"1. Breakthrough at work (I'll leave the nature of it indefinite here -- but I'll know it if it happens)

"2. Weigh no more than 185 at some point this year

"3. Contact agents/editors who might be interested in my novel on antebellum US. Begin work on revisions.

"4. Be in Dublin for Bloom's Day

"5. Follow-up on Reason publication, place something else there."

I can credit myself with success on points 2 and 4 on that list.

I accomplished 2 in early November, and again in mid-December. I'll make a related resolution, going a bit further, for this year.

As to 3, I did contact some agents, but those who replied said they couldn't help me with the kind of book I'm trying to sell. And I did no work on revision at all. Black ball for me.

I was in Dublin, though, for Bloomsday 2007 and aye, a fun time I was havin'. There was no Bloomsday tour such as I had envisaged. There were various events that day centered on the James Joyce Centre, and I attended the breakfast. The novel has two breakfast scenes -- one at the castle and one at the Bloom household -- ingrediants from both were included. I also saw a play with a Joycean theme that evening, Himself and Joyce, and generally explored the city for myself the rest of my stay.

No follow-through on the Reason publication. Nor can I claim the kind of dramatic "breakthrough" I had in mind for my resolution 1 of last year, although my worklife has been satisfying in general this year. I feel that when a breakthrough comes, it will involve the rise of the far east within global finance and my ability to contribute to coverage of that trend.

So ... where is the new list of resolutions? Here:

1. Set my feet down in some far Eastern city at some point this year
2. Learn some Cantonese and/or Mandarin
3. Weigh no more than 180 at some point this year
4. Forget about agents, pitch my novel outline directly to book editors
5. The Met. In a Tux.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.