I’m doing the best I can without trying too hard (crap spirituality 1)

The thing that can confuse me about cults or new age movements or self-help books is they have to broadly indulge/engage one’s fantasies without, however, being too trivial or easy. Some sort of time-consuming seminars, fussy dietary restrictions, substantial outgoing payments, etc., etc. are always added on.  All those lovely washed out unitarianisms and whatnot would be more popular were low levels of effort required: you’re ok, we’re redeemed.  But some suffering turns out to be essential.

At any rate, every so often I forget what I’ve just lined out above and consider starting a really low key cult that will be popular (and therefore potentially lucrative for its founder) because it’s just not that demanding.  “I’m doing the best I can without trying too hard,” however, is not a cult or even a  self help article in a women’s mag.  Maybe it’s a new Doritos flavor but that’s all I can claim by way of either  theology or marketing scheme.

This is rather indirectly related, but let me just put it out there that for balancing entertainment and substance in the realm of economics, the Apple Cinnamon Cheerios War knows few rivals.  So depending on how you fall out on this issue of consumer welfare, my redeemer-n-cheese Doritos may still have a chance of having some sort of beneficent effect on humanity.

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Posted in Economics, general observations

Barbarians and Byzantines

Fix, my son, your mind’s eye upon my words, and learn those things which I command you, and you will be able in due season as from ancestral treasures to bring forth the wealth of wisdom, and to display the abundance of wit. Know therefore that all the tribes of the north have, as it were implanted in the by nature, a ravening greed of money, never satiated, and so they demand everything and hanker after everything and have desired that know no limit or circumspection, but are always eager for more, and desirous to acquire great profits in exchange for a small service. And so these importunate demands and brazenly submitted claims must be turned back and rebutted by plausible speeches and prudent and clever excuses…
De Administrando Imperio
, Constantine Porphyrogenitus, trans. Jenkins

In an earlier post, I went into the charming challenges of life in the Southern United States. However, when I think about this flavor of culture clash (and I think about it often), I use a different historical referent than the one that titles the earlier post. As I go through my North Carolina days, one major category of these daily stresses gets labeled like this: “ooooh, this is one of those Barbarians and Byzantines moments.”

De Administrando Imperio, the source of the quote kicking off this post, is a volume of foreign policy advice written to his son by the 10th century Byzantine emperor Constantine VII. What do the importunate Northerners from the above quoted text demand? Rich vestments; Greek fire; and noble Christian brides are the specific examples given. Fortunately, Constantine also gives an example of how to fend off such demands. This is a long quote, but suitable levels of distraction and diversion are not to be accomplished tersely. I like the way it starts with stern principles and then gradually meanders out to weird anecdote. So “plausible speeches and prudent and clever excuses”: example, please, Constantine!

Should they ever require and demand, whether they be Chazars, or Turks, or again Russians, or any other nation of the northerners and Scythians, as frequently happens, that some of the imperial vesture or diadems or state robes should be sent to them in return for some service or office performed by them, then thus you shall excuse yourself : “These robes of state and the diadems, which you call ‘kamelaukia’, were not fashioned by men, nor by human arts devised or elaborated, but, as we find it written in secret stories of old history, when God made emperor the former Constantine the great, who was the first Christian emperor, He sent him these robes of state by the hand of His angel, and the diadems which you call ‘kamelaukia’, and charged him to lay them in the great and holy church of God, which, after the name of that very wisdom which is the property of God, is called St.Sophia; and not to clothe himself in them every day, but only when it is a great public festival of the Lord. And so by God’s command he laid them up, and they hang above the holy table in the sanctuary of this same church, and are for the ornament of the church. And the rest of the imperial vestments and cloaks lie spread out upon this holy table. And when a festival of our Lord and God Jesus Christ comes round, the patriarch takes up such of these robes of state and diadems as are suitable and appropriated to that occasion, and sends them to the emperor, and he wears them in the procession, and only in it, as the servant and minister of God, and after use returns them again to the church, and they are laid up in it. Moreover, there is a curse of the holy and great emperor Constantine engraved upon this holy table of the church of God, according as he was charged by God through the angel, that if an emperor for any use or occasion or unseasonable desire be minded to take of them and either himself misuse them or give them to others, he shall be anathematized as the foe and enemy of the commands of God, and shall be excommunicated from the church; moreover, if he himself be minded to make others like them, these too the church of God must take, with the freely expressed approval of all the archbishops and of the senate; and it shall not be in the authority either of the emperor, or of the patriarch, or of any other, to take these robes of state or the diadems from the holy church of God. And mighty dread hangs over them who are minded to transgress any of these divine ordinances. For one of the emperors, Leo by name, who also married a wife from Chazaria, out of his folly and rashness took up one of these diadems when no festival of the Lord was toward, and without the approval of the patriarch put it about his head. And straightway a carbuncle came forth upon his forehead so that in torment at the pains of it he evilly departed his evil life, and ran upon death untimely. And, this rash act being summarily avenged, thereafter a rule was made, that when he is about to be crowned the emperor must first swear and give surety that he will neither do nor conceive anything against what has been ordained and kept from ancient times, and then may he be crowned by the patriarch and perform and execute the rites appropriate to the established festival.”

In addition to the plausible speeches, etc., overall the devices used in Byzantine diplomacy were varied. Here is a nice overview. So, from this article we note fancy presents, impressive displays, infiltration, complex deals and alliances, among other strategems. The article doesn’t mention it but careful deployment of noble Christian brides  was indeed an example of one such area of complex alliance. But such in-depth involvement with the enemy had some long-term downsides.  In regard to a common type of military alliance:

The system of client states goes back to the time of the Republic. The princes of these peoples were bound by a definite treaty of alliance…to defend themselves and thereby the Empire against an external foe, and in return they received protection and were dispensed from paying tribute. In the later period with which we are concerned the treaty generally took a new form. The client prince received from the Emperor a fixed yearly sum, supposed to be the pay of the soldiers whom he was prepared to bring into the field. We shall meet man of these federates, such as the Abasgians and Lazi of the Caucasus, the Saracens on the Euphrates, the Ethiopians on the frontier of Egypt. It was on the basis of a contract of this kind that the Visigoths were settled south of the Danube by Theodosius the Great, and it was by similar contracts that most of the German peoples who were to dismember the western provinces would establish, in the guise of Federates, a footing on Imperial soil.
History of the Later Roman Empire, J.B. Bury

A millennium or so is an awfully good go, though.

My carpetbaggers post mentioned above that I am now winding into this one– how does it relate? The basic dynamic remains similar. There’s a society that by remaining rooted has the opportunity to build up complex (social, cultural, …) networks to a level of perhaps decadent fragility. Never a bludgeon; always a filigreed scalpel.

And then there are the people who are on the move out of innate dissatisfaction, pressure in the homeland, curiosity about noble Christian brides, what have you.

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Posted in general observations, history

Under compulsion George Saunders


Under the mild compulsion of a freshly sold book (of a paperback edition no less) foisted on him by a fan, George Saunders made a fairly game effort at fulfilling a verbose inscription request.
Requested text:
I endorse without reservation JINPR and accept all legal, moral, and aesthetic judgement that may come to rest upon me as a result of this endorsement.

Actual text in image above and transcribed here:
To JAI -2 [GS removes points from himself for misspelling] JINPR, I endorse w/out reservation JINPR; accept all legal; moral; aesthetic judgements that may come to rest bla bla bla

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Posted in literature, meta

Tarkus, you moron motherfucker, but a few other relevant points come to mind also

Re: Emerson Lake & Palmer: Do They Suck

1. Prog has restored itself to place of cultural interest and respect to such a level that posting a prog-slamming post is now a going choice for a blog to resort to for click fodder.

2. It is well established that British punk was a ploy by then upsurging Thatcherites to distract the prog-obsessed youth from the imminent threat they presented of zooming the universe to a new utopia.  The prog youth were thinking big and thinking complex and thinking weird. Complex rhythms hone the mind…

Whenever anyone is talking/writing about prog and then all of a sudden starts the “and then I heard the Sex Pistols,” it is advisable to start thinking along Manchurian Candidate lines.

3. Not everyone can pull off going shirtless under a blue lamé suit. A beautiful threat: of course they hate.

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Posted in music

It was a dark and stormy night. Hugo Chavez and Konstantin Levin stopped to debate crop yields

This was the comandante’s strategy in a nutshell : Whatever the problem, tell a story. Turn a problem into a narrative, make the country an audience, and hold its attention. Cuba , he said, had lent cloud -seeding equipment that would make it rain. “We’re bombarding clouds. We have some planes there, and some equipment that Fidel and Raúl sent us.” He suggested he would personally fly the planes . “Any cloud that comes in my way, I’ll hurl a lightning bolt at it. Tonight I’m going out to bombard.”

He turned the electricity crisis into a near-daily performance. The drought continued, but instead of focusing on energy policy blunders, everyone pictured Chávez in airman’s goggles blasting pellets at the sky. He made fresh headlines during a televised cabinet meeting by urging the nation to shower in three minutes. “Some people sing in the shower, in the shower half an hour. No, kids, three minutes is more than enough. I’ve counted, three minutes, and I don’t stink.” He wagged his finger. “If you are going to lie back in the bath, with the soap, and you turn on the, what’s it called, the Jacuzzi . . . Imagine that, what kind of communism is that? We’re not in times of Jacuzzi.” Now everyone was talking about how long they spent in the shower and whether Chávez really did scrub in under three minutes.

He took his spiel about capitalism’s destructiveness, a favorite leitmotif, to a climate summit in Copenhagen. “What we are experiencing on this planet is an imperial dictatorship, and from here we continue denouncing it. Down with imperial dictatorship!” The dignitaries applauded and cheered. “The rich are destroying the planet. Do they think they can go to another when they destroy this one? Do they have plans to go to another planet? So far there is none on the horizon of the galaxy.” No matter that Venezuela lived on selling oil to the Yankees, or that Chávez’s subsidies made its gasoline the world’s cheapest, he got a standing ovation.

Rory Carroll, Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela

There’s a certain sort of globalizing novel I crave reading and they seem to be in low production. By globalizing, what do I mean? Power, money, in the abstract and as active forces, and not so much with the kitchen sink, perhaps.

Literary expression often lets people play with concepts they experience in the real world in a variety of more or less plausible, more or less weird guises. So you might be a little kid, and you might read Eloise, and imagine what it is like to be a rich kid with sparse parental supervision. Or you may want to cheat on your spouse, so you read Updike, and while enjoying his prose, speculations are nourished, perhaps.

But, for example, macroeconomic decision making/analysis is a real world activity–like being six or being adulterous– and a lot of people but a lot of effort into it, but there really isn’t that hell of a much of a literature of it, is there?*

I’ve expressed a fondness for the intimate psychologizing of Henry James but similar efforts can feel suffocating when produced by the less inspired. And self -appointed social/political novels can be worse:the personal is the political taken under the most insipid reading possible (my shopping list is the universe).

So where is the world outside?

Sci fi novels sometimes deliver a few pages of what I crave but generally don’t manage more before devolving into bland adventure story.

So for a person of somewhat literary bent, I don’t read that many novels anymore. But sometimes I read about Venezuela.

Political novels, emotional novels… I’m going to let my now well-established retrograde tendencies fly for a bit and suggest those Famous Fat Russian novels as the ones that really balance out the full range of novelistic potential. How else can a novel maintain the reputation for tragic passionate bosom heaving when all the text is about agricultural policy, both, sure, as an analogue to broader social issues, but really plenty much both on it’s own merits as well.


At the end of September the timber had been carted for building the cattleyard on the land that had been allotted to the association of peasants, and the butter from the cows was sold and the profits divided. Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

*One obvious explanation for this: if one can spin compelling yarns based off of macroeconomic time series data sets, one could have a nicer apartment working for McKinsey than writing unpublishable novels.

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Posted in literature

This post is aiming to be something between the Queen’s Christmas message and Self Magazine’s Top New Year’s Resolutions for a Better You!

Happy just-past holidays to you all, my few lovely readers!

Without exception everything worth doing in this excruciatingly long/short span of this breathing/heartbeating business we’re invested in is right on the border of whim and compulsion. Implausible that they can be neighbors, but there they are, peering over the fence at each other whenever anything matters, i.e. one’s challenges and pleasures (and is there much else to do with your time when the essentials of feeding and funding are done).

New year, holidays, horrible Xmas letters with horrible personal updates, arrogant resolutions… this is where this post is now veering. Whim is going to try to led a cup of sugar to compulsion in an effort to get me to post regularly.  An effort of greater benefit to me than to those of you who continue to gamely check in now and again, but still. And now that I’ve reestablished one pointless goal, perhaps– and moving from blog to piano– I have a little room to let slack a little one line of somewhat aimlessly grim discipline). Here whim and compulsion stop bickering over whose property line that especially distracting shrubbery is on and can enjoy each other’s company for a while… Bartok sure came up with some admirably weird yet genuinely instructive pedagogical volumes, didn’t he? A composer that’s meant so much for me for decades, for reasons I don’t even understand fully (Where/why did I pick up the Bartok? Not sure, but at any rate, aged 12 spinning.. what would it have been…Flipper? don’t remember the particulars there, but I do remember also spinning string quartet #4 and not being able to shelve it for long despite pleas/advice to do so.  ). At any rate, whether “for children” or whether the Mikrocosmos that I realize is going to turn brutally unmanageable soon, tears of uncomprehending shocked pleasure that with whatever degree of ghastly ineptitude I can start in a small way working at this stuff.

Posted in general observations, music, my life

Just a bit more on the Venezuelan financial drama (LitPolEcon 3/3)

The central narrative* of interest in the earlier post, by the way, is how the ebbs and flows of Venezuela’s foreign balance of payments inspire a bizarre drama that manages to combine paranoia, violence, beauty queens, gangsters, and lots of suffering regular Venezuelan citizens (and lots of happy Venezuelan gangster citizens).
A couple of relevant recent readings:
*and the narrative/literary angle  is how I justify blogging economics and Latin American news in this frivolous blog.
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Posted in off topic, the real world