The Renoir Patriarch

Pierre-Auguste RenoirOn this day in 1663, the English writer Pierre Antoine Motteux was born. He is most remembered today for his English translation of Don Quixote. It is generally regarded as terrible. When I first started studying the book, I wrote of this translation, “I originally thought that Peter Motteux’s translation dated from the Victorian period, because of its pomposity. In fact, it is the earliest translation that I looked at—dating back to 1712. Predating Jarvis by only three decades (When a decade meant something!), this translation seems like it comes from another world. I still find its writing style ‘sticky.'” My hero Samuel Putnam writes, “Peter Anthony Motteux was a tea merchant who dabbled in lterature, and it might have been better if he had confined himself to the China trade.” John Ormsby called it, “Worse than worthless.” Richard Ford called it “the very worst.” And Bertram Worlfe called it “the odious Motteux translation.” It has been, not surprisingly, the most popular in the United States until Putnam’s 1949 publication. Now, of course, really good translations seem to come out every couple of years.

Singer-songwriter George Harrison was born in 1943. Like all the members of The Beatles, he’s overrated. But I still like his stuff. Here he is doing one of his best, “My Sweet Lord”:

Doug Yule is 67 today. He was John Cale’s replacement in The Velvet Underground. He added a lot to the band. And Lou Reed was a total dick to him. I know, Lou Reed was a dick to everyone. But Reed was able to be a much bigger dick to Yule. Reed prevented Yule from being inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That was actually the thing that really turned me against Reed. That was when Reed was 54, so I don’t think there is any excuse for it except, of course, that Reed is a dick. Here is “Who Loves the Sun” from Loaded with Yule on lead vocals:

Comedy writer Jack Handey is 65. I only know him from his Saturday Night Live bits “Deep Thoughts.” This is one of the best:

Other birthdays: actor Zeppo Marx (1901); playwright Mary Chase (1907); actor Jim Backus (1913); comedy writer Larry Gelbart (1928); film director Neil Jordan (64); musician John Doe (60); and comedian Carrot Top (49).

The day, however, belongs to the great impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir who was born on this day in 1841. A problem I have with a lot of the impressionists is that their work is too pat. Renoir combines incredible skill with a unique perspective. His ability to capture light was as great as Monet’s, but he took it much further. That is especially true in the latter part of his career when he took a turn toward classicism. This eventually led to his best work like Grandes Baigneuses:

Grandes Baigneuses - Renoir

Happy birthday Pierre-Auguste Renoir!

A Little Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John HurtFor some reason, I mentioned Mississippi John Hurt to a client who had never heard of him. So I went looking for a song to send him. Hurt was an interesting guy. He was a sharecropper in Mississippi, but his guitar playing and singing made him popular as a local act. This eventually led to some recordings for Okeh Records in the late 1920s. These didn’t take off, so Hurt went back to farming.

Many years later, an ethnomusicologist, Tom Hoskins, discovered Hurt’s music and decided to locate him based upon lyrics in his song “Avalon Blues.” In 1963, he did so. This led to Hurt performing at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival where he became a star on the folk scene. You can see why. His guitar work is fabulous. And so for the three years that remained for him, he performed widely and recorded three albums. It’s kind of a shame that he didn’t get to perform music his whole life. But at least he and the rest of the world got those last three years and the music that is left to us.

One of his original recording was “Frankie,” an early folk version of the pop song “Frankie and Johnny” about Frankie Baker’s murder of her lover Allen Britt. It’s worth checking out. There is also a fine version of “Spike Driver Blues.” But here is the folk standard “Lonesome Valley.” This is from Pete Seeger’s television show Rainbow Quest:

The Fed Isn’t Interested in Our World

Federal ReserveMatt Yglesias brought my attention to something really interesting yesterday, Ben Bernanke’s Biggest Mistake. It contains more information from the recent dump of FOMC transcripts. But this one paints the Fed in an especially bad light that is unfortunately not at all surprising.

It focuses on the 16 September 2008 meeting—just after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. At that time, the Effective Fed Funds Rate was still at the relatively high 2%. Right now it is at 0.07%—effectively zero. So there is relatively little that the Fed can do to help the economy. But in September 2008, the Federal Reserve had a lot of power. They could have helped the economy by lowering interest rates. In fact, the markets were expecting them to do just that. Instead they did… nothing.

As Yglesias points out, this potentially had very negative effects on the economy:

When the stock market tumbled 4.71 percent the day after the meeting and kept falling through the week, the predominant interpretation came to be that policymakers had underestimated the harm done by allowing Lehman to fail, leading down the road to TARP and other bailouts. Another interpretation: They underestimated the harm done by ignoring clear and unequivocal evidence that the situation called for looser monetary policy. Markets were expecting a rate cut. The data pointed to a rate cut. But rates were not cut.

What the transcripts show is that the Fed board just wasn’t interested in what was happening to the economy generally. They were focused on what was happening to the banking industry. And that was important. But they didn’t seem to care at all about unemployment. September 2008 was the inflection point from the relatively low unemployment before the crisis to the high levels after it. But it didn’t matter because unemployment never really matters to the Fed.

Matt YglesiasThey had the data that indicted exactly what was happening. As Yglesias puts it, “In other words, inflation was down, the labor market was down, and the dollar was up.” So this isn’t even the usual case where the Fed is willing to do something about unemployment but only if it absolutely won’t cause inflation to tick up, which makes the power elite angry. In this case, they knew that inflation wasn’t a problem. And they did nothing, I think because it just didn’t matter to them.

Let’s look at it from the opposite perspective. If the Fed had information that inflation was about to explode, they wouldn’t have been complacent. They wouldn’t have figured that they could deal with it later when it actually happened. They would have understood that stopping inflation before it starts makes it easier to combat that waiting until it is a problem. They would have understand that allowing inflation to become a problem would cause unnecessary pain. But when it came to unemployment, it didn’t matter. In the month after they decided to not raise interest rates, unemployment went up 0.4 percentage points. Over a half million workers lost their jobs. And it allowed the whole economy to race into a recession that could have been slowed by a brisker response.

The issue, however, is not that proper action by the Fed would have improved the situation a great deal. The issue is that as we already know, the Fed is not focused on the regular economy. Their primary concern is for the power elite: Wall Street and the big banks. And in this case, even with plenty of data indicating that they should take action and lower interest rates, they ignored the concerns of the regular economy because they were so focused on the power elite.

Yglesias also provides a bit of Fed apologetics by noting that “it would be a stretch to say that FOMC members were indifferent to the basic economic situation.” I don’t think it is a stretch at all. They were concerned that the whole infrastructure of their world was falling apart. The fact that “their world” doesn’t include much of “our world” is a huge problem that we see from the Federal Reserve every day—crisis or no.

Why I Don’t Like The Big Bang Theory

The Big Bang TheoryOver at Wired, the Angry Nerd discusses why he doesn’t like the television series The Big Bang Theory. You can watch the video below. The problem is that he doesn’t really explain what his problem is, so I thought that I would.

Many people over the years have gushed to me about the show as if I would love it. Supposedly “smart” people would love the show because it is filled with “smart” characters who work in the high tech industry. The idea that I would like the show for this reason is very much like thinking your dog would like to watch Air Bud.

The biggest problem with the show is that the characters seem to be stuck at 13. Actual nerds grow up just like other people. As adults, we nerds may hold onto our interests, but we don’t have heated arguments about which super hero is the strongest. In my experience, none of us ever did. Those who did were generally sub-geniuses, who I’ve always tried to avoid.

The Angry Nerd makes one devastating observation about the show. Often the pop culture references are used as punchlines. So what is funny is not the line but rather the silly nerd and his excitement over some triviality. The show does not laugh with us, it laughs at us.

Many nerds never get into pop culture, regardless. To me, what defines a nerd is his total cluelessness regarding what is cool to most adolescents. So a nerd might be oriented toward science, but he’s just as likely to be oriented toward some form of art. But such adolescents stand out as awkward, not because they are more so than others, but because they are so passionate about their interests that it shows.

So The Big Bang Theory misses the defining characteristic of nerds by focusing on some of the most trivial stereotypes. The little I’ve seen of the show always reminds me of lunchtime discussions in high school rather than anything I ever saw in college and beyond. But none of this is to say that it is a bad show. It’s a situation comedy and as such I suppose it is as good as most. Which isn’t saying much. Which is what I’m saying.