CRF Blog

Modern Asian leaders


by David De La Torre

In No unity in diversity, The Economist reviews Makers of Modern Asia edited by Ramachandra Guha.

The strength of the idea lies in the 11 leaders it covers and the expertise of the writers assembled to tell their extraordinary stories. They range from Mr Guha himself on Gandhi, an ascetic apostle of non-violence, to Rana Mitter on Mao Zedong, responsible for more deaths than perhaps any other modern leader. Yet, as Mr Mitter notes, these two share the distinction of being among the very few non-European leaders to achieve global brand-name status in the 20th century. Three other Chinese leaders are included. Two of them, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, made their names by not being Mao. Zhou kept his reputation as a moderate who had tempered Mao’s excesses; Deng doffed his cap to Mao but dismantled virtually everything he stood for. The final Chinese “maker”, Chiang Kai-shek, ended up in exile, founding one of Asia’s great success stories in Taiwan. [more]

Judge Alex Kozinski on bringing back firing squads

by Bill Hayes

In Judge Alex Kozinski on bringing back firing squads for the Los Angeles Times, columnist Patt Morrison interviews the chief judge of Ninth Circuit, who raised eyebrows recently when he suggested a return to firing squads for executions.

Were you being hyperbolic about firing squads to get our attention?

No, I was quite serious. We’ve had a lot of litigation about problems with [lethal] drugs. Meanwhile we are spending an immense amount of money and resources, and giving false hopes to the victims’ families, and we don’t really have a death penalty at all in California.

I never thought using drugs was a good idea. People who make the equipment, the drugs, the catheters — they’re involved in lifesaving, not killing. Lethal injection in particular, it’s all hands-on; they have to strap the body down, they have to put the catheter in, take the vital signs. It’s a hard position for a doctor. If there’s still a pulse or heartbeat, maybe they’ll give more drugs to finish the job, so the doctor is put in a position of essentially helping them. [more]

European history

by David De La Torre

In Religious warring, The Economist reviews Christendom Destroyed: Europe 1517–1648 by Mark Greengrass

THE new Penguin History of Europe, edited by Sir David Cannadine, was launched more than a decade ago. With five volumes now out, it is shaping up to be the best general account available, superseding all previous ones. The latest volume covers what might be called the birth of modern Europe, from the Reformation, which broke the dominance of the Roman Catholic church, to the Treaty of Westphalia, which entrenched the idea of the nation-state. It also maps the transition from the medieval notion of Christendom to the modern concept of Europe, something that provides the main theme for Mark Greengrass, now an emeritus professor at Sheffield University. [more]

Charlie Rose interviews Ian Bremmer

by Bill Hayes

Charlie Rose interviews Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, on conflicts around the world.

Rival Kremlin Factions Feud Over Russia’s Economy

by Bill Hayes

In Rival Kremlin Factions Feud Over Russia’s Economy, Bloomberg Businessweek reports on the split within the Russian government.

One faction, centered around Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, is concerned about Russia’s increasing alienation from the global financial system, the officials say. The other group — which includes Putin’s chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, veterans of the security services, and heads of state companies such as Igor Sechin of oil giant Rosneft (ROSN:RM) — favors greater state control over the economy. With the price of oil, Russia’s largest export, at a 27-month low and banks turning to the state for funding, there’s less money to go to the state-owned companies. “The long-running conflict between rival pro-Putin camps has elevated to war,” says Stanislav Belkovsky, a Kremlin adviser during Putin’s first term who now advises Moscow’s Institute for National Strategy, a think tank. “The elite are fighting for a shrinking pool of assets.” [more]

Why Bach Moves Us

by Bill Hayes

In Why Bach Moves Us for the New York Review of Books, George B. Stauffer reviews Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven by John Eliot Gardiner.

Unlike Mozart, Beethoven, and other classical composers for whom personal letters abound, Bach left behind little correspondence. He never wrote an autobiographical sketch, even though he was invited to do so several times, and in only three instances — a job inquiry to an old school chum, a concerned exchange with town officials over the misdemeanors of his son Johann Gottfried Bernhard, and underlinings and marginalia in his Calov Bible — does he offer a glimpse of his inner self. All the rest must be pieced together from council records, pay receipts, anecdotes, brief printed notices, a carefully worded obituary, and other scraps of information. Bach’s character has remained largely hidden from view.

As a result, biographers have been forced to fend for themselves, frequently reimagining Bach through the prism of their own life and times. Johann Nicolaus Forkel, a passionate keyboard player and German nationalist, first portrayed Bach in 1802 as a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist and model citizen for Germany’s rising middle class. Later in the century, Philipp Spitta, born into a family of theologians and leader of the Lutheran church-music revival, portrayed Bach as the Fifth Evangelist, vigorously spreading the gospel through his Lutheran cantatas, motets, and Passions. And more recently, Christoph Wolff, former dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and University Professor at Harvard, presented Bach as a “learned musician,” an intellect worthy of Sir Isaac Newton and a town music director well acquainted with the faculty of the university in Leipzig.

It is no surprise, then, that Gardiner proposes yet another image of Bach. Moving beyond the hagiographies of the past, he presents a fallible Bach, a musical genius who on the one hand is deeply committed to illuminating and expanding Luther’s teachings through his sacred vocal works (and therefore comes close to Spitta’s Fifth Evangelist), but on the other hand is a rebellious and resentful musician, harboring a lifelong grudge against authority — a personality disorder stemming from a youth spent among ruffians and abusive teachers. Hiding behind Bach, creator of the Matthew Passion and B-Minor Mass, Gardiner suggests, is Bach “the reformed teenage thug.” In the preface we read: “Emphatically, Bach the man was not a bore.” Neither is Gardiner.

Gardiner draws on the most recent findings of the Bach Archive research team, especially Michael Maul’s important study of the St. Thomas Choir. This material was not available to previous biographers. But he believes the key to unlocking Bach’s concealed character lies in the music itself, “the anchor to which we can return again and again, and the principal means of validating or refuting any conclusion about its author.” In this sense his approach resembles that used for Shakespeare in Will in the World

by Stephen Greenblatt, who called on passages from the Bard’s works to flesh out an otherwise skeletal biography. The chief difference is that Greenblatt considered all the plays and sonnets, whereas Gardiner limits himself to Bach’s vocal works — a restriction that raises problems. [more]

The Trouble with Amicus Facts

by Bill Hayes

Satirist Stephen Colbert interviews law professor Allison Orr Larsen, who has written a law review article on the problems with amicus briefs before the Supreme Court. Here is her article, The Trouble with Amicus Facts.

Trust No One

by Bill Hayes

In Trust No One for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell reviews A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre.

When Kim Philby decided that he wanted to join the British Secret Intelligence Service, he “dropped a few hints here and there,” as he later recalled, and waited patiently. Philby had attended Trinity College, Cambridge, and his father had been in the Foreign Service. He had the right accent. It was the late nineteen-thirties, when the British class system was still firmly in place, and a formal application wasn’t necessary. On a train to London, Philby found himself in the first-class compartment with a journalist named Hester Harriet Marsden-Smedley, who was of that same small world. She looked him over and said that she would make a few inquiries on his behalf. Then he got a call from someone at the War Department, and was invited to tea at St. Ermin’s Hotel, off St. James’s, with an imperious Tory doyenne named Sarah Algeria Marjorie Maxse. They chatted. Philby was famously charming. He had impeccable manners, a disarming stammer, and an epic capacity for alcohol. His name was passed up the line to M.I.5 — the British F.B.I. — which came back with the laconic verdict “nothing recorded against.” The deputy head of the British spy service, M.I.6, had served with Philby’s father in India. “I was asked about him,” the official explained later, “and I said I knew his people.”

Once Philby joined M.I.6, he roamed its halls, gossiping and making friends. The man who controlled the “source books” — the inventory of British intelligence assets — was a red-faced ex-policeman with a crippling drinking habit. Philby would go out and get him drunk, and soon had the run of the files. He became fast friends with James Angleton, who later rose to the head of counterintelligence at the C.I.A. The two of them served together in Washington, and had long boozy lunches, at which they traded the most intimate secrets. Philby was promoted to head the anti-Soviet section of M.I.6, and then became the principal liaison between the British and the U.S. intelligence agencies. “I looked around at the part-time stockbrokers and retired Indian policemen, the agreeable epicureans from the bars of White’s and Boodle’s, the jolly, conventional ex-Navy officers and the robust adventurers from the bucket shop; and then I looked at Philby,” the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper later wrote. “He alone was real. I was convinced that he was destined to head the service.”

He came close. In 1951, two of his good friends — Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean — fled to Moscow, revealing themselves to be Soviet spies. Philby’s colleagues stood by him, but he was forced to resign. He moved to Beirut to work as a correspondent for the Observer and The Economist, only to have M.I.5 launch a second investigation, in the early nineteen-sixties. Before it could be completed, Philby slipped away. In January of 1963, a car with diplomatic plates picked him up from a bar in downtown Beirut and took him to a Soviet freighter bound for Odessa. He had been, it turned out, a Soviet spy since soon after leaving Cambridge, in the mid-nineteen-thirties, dutifully feeding his K.G.B. handlers every morsel of information gleaned from his many friendships. [more]

Through Enemy Lines

by Bill Hayes

In Through Enemy Lines for the New York Times Book Review, Ben Macintyre reviews The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of Christine Granville by Clare Mulley.

Christine Granville was one of the bravest, toughest and strangest secret agents of World War II. Her feats of derring-do included acting as a courier in Nazi-occupied Europe, parachuting into France in support of the Allied invasion and rescuing three of her comrades from certain execution. She was said to be Winston Churchill’s favorite spy — a considerable accolade given how much Britain’s wartime prime minister liked spies. She may have been the model for Vesper Lynd, the female agent in Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, “Casino Royale.” She won medals for bravery from both Britain and France. Men found her irresistible, and she did very little to resist them.

Yet this woman, so ripe for Hollywood hagiography, is almost unknown today. [more]

The Gonzo Historian

by Bill Hayes

In The Gonzo Historian for the Atlantic, Sam Tanenhaus reviews The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan by Rick Perlstein.

The Invisible Bridge follows Nixonland in its hyper-reductive psychobiographizing. Perlstein rehashes the familiar story of Reagan’s boyhood and youth, plus his years in Hollywood and as a General Electric pitchman, when he perfected a line of extremist patter at once alarmist and soothing. “At turning complexity and confusion and doubt into simplicity and stout-heartedness and certainty, Ronald Reagan’s power was simply awesome,” Perlstein writes. “As an athlete of the imagination, he was a Babe Ruth, a Jack Dempsey, a Red Grange.” The cartoon prose obscures rather than explains. Garry Wills has as little use for Reagan as Perlstein does, but his book Reagan’s America, published in 1987, makes the more nuanced case that this most elusive of American political heroes was “just as simple, and just as mysterious, as our collective dreams and memories.” Thus he seemed the right man “at a time when the nation needed some reassuring.”

Perlstein does much better on different terrain. He reminds us that the other dark horse in 1976, Jimmy Carter, was a canny political strategist who read Watergate disillusionment more accurately than any other Democrat and shrewdly juggled personas, presenting himself both as a humble evangelical Christian and as an outsider technocrat-businessman. [more]

Nerd culture is destroying Silicon Valley

by Bill Hayes

In Nerd culture is destroying Silicon Valley for Quartz, self-described nerd Pete Warden argues that nerds, who are no longer victims, are using their victim mentality to justify their bad behavior.

One of the things I love about nerd culture is how much it values evidence and fact checking. When I’m optimizing code, my intuition about which parts are slowest is often wildly wrong, so I’ve learned the hard way that I have to profile the hell out of it before I try to fix anything. It’s a core skill for dealing with computers, our gut feelings often don’t work in such an alien realm, so skepticism becomes a habit. What has surprised me is how we leave that habit behind when confronted with evidence about ourselves. Pretty much every statistic we can track has shown fewer women getting computer science degrees and working as engineers compared to the 80s. We’re an incredibly imbalanced industry in all sorts of ways, from race to class and gender, and we’re getting worse. [more]

Chart of the Day: TV Finales

Infographic: The Most Watched TV Series Finales in History | Statista

You will find more statistics at Statista

Cricket in Pakistan

by David De La Torre

In Batting for survival, The Economist reviews Wounded Tiger: The History of Cricket in Pakistan from the British Empire to the Taliban by Peter Oborne.

The title refers to a team talk given by the then Pakistani cricket captain, Imran Khan, halfway through the 1992 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The Pakistanis were playing abysmally and on the verge of elimination. To survive, they must fight like cornered Tigers, urged Mr Khan. What followed was spectacular: a run of flamboyant victories, including in the tournament’s final, against England. Humiliation and triumph — all sportsmen face them. Pakistan’s mercurial cricketers often seem to do so on a weekly basis. [more]

Executive pay is an insult to working families

by Bill Hayes

In Executive pay is an insult to working families for the Los Angeles Times, business columnist David Lazarus argues that many CEOs get paid too much.

Who’s the worst offender? That would be CVS Caremark CEO Larry Merlo. According to a recent report from compensation researcher PayScale, his $12.1-million salary last year was 422 times the size of the median CVS wage of $28,700.

I mean, what, did the guy cure cancer? Did he end the scourge of Alzheimer’s? Under what possible set of circumstances could the head of not the country’s largest drugstore chain but the second-largest be worth 422 times his typical underling?

CVS’ revenue increased 3% last year to almost $127 billion. Its profit rose 19% to $4.6 billion. The company stock price jumped 48%.

Those are impressive numbers. But was the company’s strong performance entirely attributable to Merlo? [more]

The American Argument Against an African Travel Ban

by Bill Hayes

In The American Argument Against an African Travel Ban for Bloomberg Businessweek, Charles Kenny argues against banning travel from western Africa.

We don’t have a vaccine against Ebola nor a fully developed cure. But like the plague, the disease is an unlikely candidate for epidemic status in the U.S. or elsewhere in the developed world. The only way to contract Ebola is for the bodily fluids of someone who’s exhibiting symptoms to come into contact with your soft tissues — the eyes or mouth, for example. In the worst of circumstances, the average Ebola victim infects one or two other people, compared with 10 or more who can be infected by someone with measles.

Isolation of people with symptoms, rather than quarantine of an entire population, can stop an epidemic. That’s why all previous Ebola outbreaks have sputtered, leaving the world with no reported cases in 2010, for example. The U.S. has top-notch isolation facilities, and health authorities have considerable experience of “contact tracing,” or finding all the people a victim has spent time with since he began exhibiting symptoms and checking that they don’t have the disease. [more]