Saturday, October 3, 2015

Book Review 354: Tweakerville

TWEAKERVILLE: Life and Death in Hawaii’s Ice World, by Alexei Melnick. 262 pages. Mutual paperback, $15.95

It is uncommon for a didactic novel to also be a good novel, but Alexei Melnick has done it with “Tweakerville,” which can be read from several points of view and works in all of them.

We know it is didactic because Melnick ends the book with a Q & A about why he wrote it and how the characters can be critiqued and understood. I generally avoid didactic novels and also novels set in Hawaii with drugs as the theme. In the first case, I hate sermons; and in the second, the plots and authors are usually lame and lazy.

I read this one because of a positive blurb by Chris McKinney, who wrote a fine novel about Hawaii’s underclass, “The Tattoo.”

“Tweakerville” can be read as a tragedy in the sense that Aristotle defined it: a character makes a decision that is blameless in itself but brings disaster to everyone around him.

In this case, Jesse, a runner for a crystal meth dealer, answers a ringing cell phone. It is an automatic, thoughtless gesture; but the phone belonged to a young girl who overdosed at a party the night before. Jesse has just dug a hole to dispose of her body.

(One of the many threads of contrast in the novel is the honest dealer vs. the dishonest dealer. Apparently the dead girl had bought low-quality ice (batu, clear) from the dishonest dealer. However, honest dealers like Jesse and his mentor Robby don’t do any better than the bad ones.)

Or “Tweakerville” can be read as a noir crime novel. Jesse is the young acolyte -- 17 when we meet him -- aiming to gain respect and money by serving an established hoodlum.

 In this reading, the novel is as pitiless and violent as, say, Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn.”

The best reading is as a coming of age novel. If “Tweakerville” has a long life among readers, I suspect it will be as a young adult novel, although it was not written as one. Its profanity would have precluded its publication even for adults two generations ago, but young adults read sterner stuff these days.

In addition to Jesse’s quest for adulthood, there is a love story, with Kapika, also 17 when we meet her. She is from a somewhat more privileged social class than Jesse (but only somewhat), but this is no Gatsby yearning for Daisy romance. Jesse and Kapika are among the more cynical young romantics of literature.

(I have little to criticize in this book, but for a novel meant to be realistic, there is a serious goof in the meeting scene of Jesse and Kapika. Jesse is trying to buy beer [unusually for him; he usually boosts it] and Kapika the clerk demands identification. The problem is that in Hawaii, the seller as well as the buyer has to be of age; 17-year-old Kapika would not be allowed to sell beer.)

Many betrayals and murders later, the novel ends back at the dead girl’s grave. Going clean, as dealer Robby does, does not preserve you. Being a loving family guy, like Vili, Jesse’s most admired friend, does not preserve you. Being a stand-up guy, as Jesse is, does not preserve you.

Smokable meth -- or as Jesse calls it, clear -- dominates all. “Next thing you know had seven cop cars up the road. All for one tweaked out love sick butchie.  Clear is like that for some guys. No fear or pain, no tomorrow, just love and rage right now.”

Melnick has chosen to write the novel in the first person. Jesse speaks what I call Bamboo Ridge creole (because it originated in the literary magazine Bamboo Ridge), a printed form of pidgen that is not like any pidgen you hear but is serviceable enough. Kapika’s language is slightly less pidgen-y, and her tone is also slightly less effective.

Melnick is a born-and-raised, and his local color touches are authentic and nuanced, which is something outsiders writing fiction set in Hawaii never achieve. Locals will understand why Jesse’s last name is Gomes: Potagees (Portuguese) are stereotyped in the islands as loquacious, but the stereotype is valid often enough; only a Potagee would have told this long story. The other locals are, typically, economical of speech.

Once or twice, Melnick oversells the contrasts. Jesse is a dropout; he has an older sister who did well in school. That her school was Punahou (Barack Obama’s high school) is not impossible for a Potagee family headed by a tugboat captain but slightly surprising.

Gun nut delusions exposed

Gun nuts are all pretty much psychotics, in the definition that says a psychotic is someone who is not able to distinguish his fantasies from reality. Here we have a clear statement that exposes their key delusions.

One, which has been disproven so often that we can only conclude that anyone still shopping it is either a deliberate liar or crazy, is that killers aiming at a big score choose "gun-free zones."

However, the Umpqua school is not free of guns. How many persons on the campus were armed is hard to say, but the number was not zero and, according to the statement linked above, was considerable. They did not ride to the sound of the guns. They sheltered in place, just like wimpy unarmed liberals.

For good reason:
“Luckily we made the choice not to get involved,” he explained. “We were quite a distance away from the building where this was happening. And we could have opened ourselves up to be potential targets ourselves, and not knowing where SWAT was, their response time, they wouldn’t know who we were. And if we had our guns ready to shoot, they could think that we were bad guys.”
That is the very most optimistic view of it. Had they intervened, they'd just as likely have shot a student as a gunman, as happened in gun-happy Houston last week. Even more likely, they'd have lost the shootout with the already armed and prepped killer.

Three million Americans have been shot to death in the past century. The number who were criminals plugged by a conveniently placed gun nut is very small, and possibly (even probably) smaller than the number of innocents shot by mistake.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Book Review 353: Against the Gods

AGAINST THE GODS: THE REMARKABLE STORY OF RISK, By Peter L. Bernstein. 383 pages. Wiley paperback, $18.95.

When “Against the Gods” was published in 1996, it was taken seriously. Parts of it still can be, but subsequent events have turned Peter Bernstein’s thesis into a bad joke.

His idea is that over a period of around 800 years, men (no women) thinking about mathematical descriptions of events figured out how to manage risk for the good of all of us.

Only in the past generation, though, did they really nail it. Prior to that time, humans considered themselves at the mercy of fate or capricious deities — hence the title. These mathematicians showed how there are regularities and constraints that we can use to guide our planning. Good for them.

It began with gamblers trying to understand their chances. These chances are now very well understood, at least by those who understand them. The casinos are full of people who do not.

In the 19th century, the mathematicians began to try to understand far more complex systems, including those in which humans can make choices. The villain here was Francis Galton, who wildly overinterpreted some apparent regularities that appear across unrelated systems.

This is the reversion to the mean, and here is where Bernstein starts becoming ridiculous.  Especially as it is applied to markets, which was Bernstein’s job. He had a company that advised fund managers.

If you think about it, it is really hard to find examples of any system that reverts to its mean. Physical systems have to come to equilibrium, and the example of a balloon obeying the ideal gas laws is probably the favorite example.

But it is hard to find an example of a real physical system reverting to a mean; or even to define such a mean. Did the atmospheres of the Moon and Venus revert to a mean? Is a black hole a reversion to a mean?

The temperature of the Earth, which has not varied too much from its current value for nearly 4 billion years, is the only example I can think of.

Anyway, when it comes to stocks and other investments, Bernstein is downright comical. The price of tulip bulbs, for example. They went way up in the 17th century and then came down, which Bernstein says should not have surprised investors who got in late. But today I can buy a tulip bulb for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a penny of the 17th century price; the price is so low that it cannot be computed in terms that would mean anything to a resident of Amsterdam 400 years ago.

So what mean was that reverting to?

As Bernstein finished “Against the Gods,” two of the book’s heroes, Merton and Scholes, were advising a hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, how to manage risk. By the time the paperback edition came out, LTCM was broke and, far from reducing overall risk, it was so big that it had manufactured global systemic risk that had not existed before.
In his summation, Bernstein does recognize the joker in the deck, although he fails to assign it its proper weight.

By the ‘90s, the people who thought they understood how to manage risk — and were paid immense amounts to do so — were in love with derivatives. Handicapping the first wave of disastrous derivatives in the early ‘90s, Bernstein opined:

“There is no inherent reason why a hedging instrument should wreak havoc on its owner. . . . These disasters in derivative deals among big-name companies occurred for the simple reason that corporate executives ended up adding to their exposure to volatility rather than limiting it. They turned the company’s treasury into a profit center (once they noticed that hedges, which are a zero-sum game, sometimes yielded big gains).”

But nothing is more predictable than that managers in a free market system will do so. They have to, and everything in their ideology tells them they are right to do so.

Bernstein’s final pages are odd. After spending 300 pages telling us that risk has become scientifically manageable, for the benefit of all of us, he then describes how it hasn’t.

Long before the Bush Crash, the mortgage crisis in derivatives was brewing — it had nothing whatever to do with the Community Reinvestment Act — and here Bernstein did almost anticipate risk correctly. Though only in a footnote, he warned: “these mortgage-backed securities are complex, volatile, and much too risky for amateur investors to play around with.”

Too risky for the pros, too. I wonder what Peter L. Bernstein Inc. was advising its clients about mortgage-backed securities in 2006-7 or thereabouts. 

(I just realized that this Bernstein is the same idiot who wrote “Wedding of the Waters,” a ridiculous book about the Erie Canal. I wish I had connected the names sooner and not wasted my time on this silly book. On the other hand, Bernstein was in his time an influential popularizer of theories of investment, so it was useful to learn what doofus ideas Wall Street will buy.)


Institutional amnesia

“My first job as speaker is to protect the institution,” Mr. Boehner said, as he left the institution of the House of Representatives.

I wonder what  the Speaker thought he was doing for the institution when he allowed it to conduct 54 -- or six, if you use rightwing math -- pointless votes to end Obamacare.

This is a newly popular meme among rightwing failures. Just last week, Scott Walker announced that he was protecting the nomination process by leading himself out of it:
"Today, I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field in this race so that a positive, conservative message can rise to the top of the field," Walker said.
I guess Bob Dole was the last consciously humorous Republican but he wasn't nearly as funny as these guys.

Friday, September 25, 2015

American Hezbollah

One of the very favorite claims of historically illiterate rightwingers (which is almost all of them) is that the Democratic Party was the party of the Ku Klux Klan and that for a long time some of its most powerful leaders were racists of a brutal and blatant sort.

All true. Up to a point. Southern rightwingers -- racists and theocrats for the most part -- were Democrats for a century following the Civil War, although they made for an uncomfortable fit with a party that, observed nationally, was urban, wet, pro-labor and full of Catholics and Jews.

The typical Southern Democrat was rural, dry (at least publicly), anti-labor and hated Catholics and Jews. (Growing up Catholic in Georgia, I learned that firsthand.)

(As an historical side note, it is common for political parties to keep their old names while they evolve into something more or less opposite of what they were: in France the Radicals turned into a rightwing party; and similar changes can be found in many countries, including ours.)

It was not inevitable that the Democratic Party would be captured by its liberal wing and shed its racists and anti-Semites and theocrats. Party managers could not point to any national election won by a Democrat that could have been pulled off without the Solid South. And as long as the seniority system was regnant in Congress, the party relied on long-serving Southerners to keep control of the committee apparatus.

So it was somewhat of a surprise in 1948 when the national party embraced a mildly egalitarian platform (following a rousing speech by the young mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert Humphrey), and allowed itself to split on racial lines with South Carolina racist Strom Thurmond bearing the  banner of the Dixiecrats.

There was no comparable division in the Republican Party, no sectional powerhouse pushing that party in the direction of intolerance.

So when the Republican Party became the party of racism, it did not jump. It was pushed.

The pusher was Richard Nixon, a man that historian Rick Pearlstein calls the master politician of his age. (He makes a good case for that in "Nixonland.")

Nixon was a closet racist, so he had no personal qualms about trying to change the ethos of the party. In those days, the party still took pride in its Lincolnesque origin, and it had a liberal wing, and even a few Jewish leaders, like Sen. Jacob Javits.

It is remarkable that Nixon was able to pull off his Southern Strategy. The appeal of the anti-labor, militaristic party to Southerners was apparent, but it was not superficially apparent why the national Republicans should want to embrace the violent, scummy Southerners.

But he managed it without a whimper from the national party, suggesting that the party's more or less tolerant platforms were no more than a form of political nostalgia. It turned out the national party was full of anti-black and anti-Semitic haters, and all they needed was a leader to tell them it was acceptable not to to admit it but to legislate it.

This is not controversial history. Observers at the time noted it and people still living (like me) can remember how it happened.

Only recently, as part of the Big Lie campaign of vilification have Republican partisans taken to jeering at Democrats as -- still -- the party of the KKK. 

So we have the theocratic, historic Democrat Kim Davis -- or at least her lawyer -- to thank for a breath of honesty today. Davis was a Democrat because people in her part of the country are Democrats by habit. There is no evidence that she shares any political ideas in common with the party.

So she's turning Republican. She and her whole family, we are told. Significantly, she did not wake up and discover that the Republican Party was in tune with her theocratic notions. Her recent personal history revealed to her that the Democrats aren't. You may think she has not been paying attention for about the last 50 years, but better late than never, I guess:

“She has come to the conclusion that the Democratic Party has left her,” Mathew D. Staver, a lawyer for Ms. Davis, said in a statement.

I don't know if Davis is a racist. I've seen no indication that she is. If she isn't, her new friendship may be a bit awkward.

But anyway, thanks Kim Davis. You may be a bigoted homophobic hypocrite living in sin with a man who isn't your Christian husband, but you are a political realist.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Why have a CEO?

Some leftists have agitated for years against the high pay of American business executives, at least the ones at the tippy top. In the rest of th world, including Europe, CEOs are paid much, much less.

But what if they have misstated the problem? What if businesses don't need CEOs at all?

Take Volkswagen. It's fired CEO, Martin Winterkorn, says he had no knowledge of a scheme to fake emissions equipment.

I don't believe that, but what if he is being honest?

Somebody was in a position to bet the company. And did, and lost the bet.

So what was the point of having a chief executive?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Muslim v. Adventist cage match

I have been waiting in vain for the commentariat to say the obvious about Ben Carson's candidacy. But nobody has, so RtO will have to do it from scratch. (I hate when that happens.)

As an example in point-missing, take today's Washington Post analysis of the polls. Reporter Janell Ross is surprised to find that Carson's support among evangelicals, while high, is not his basic strength, or even as high as Trump's share.

Well, duh. Carson is a Seventh-day Adventist. Obviously, most evangelicals -- low information voters if ever there were any -- don't know that yet, although I interpret the low number as a sign they are beginning to find out.

Evangelicals hate Adventists even more than they hate Mormons or Catholics. And since evangelicals count for the most in Republican primaries, Carson is finished.

As RtO pointed out a few days ago ("Changing  faces of the candidates," Aug. 27), there's never been a Catholic winner since Kennedy, and he won by stuffing ballot boxes. It's possible the nation will someday elect a Catholic president, although I doubt that day is close, but an Adventist? Never gonna happen.

Even if Carson throws the holy rollers some red meat about Muslims.