New York Bagels

I see that over the weekend there was much consideration of the issue of New York and Bagels. Matthew Yglesias comments (“The Stuff that Matters,” ThinkProgress, 28 November 2008):

I’ve now lived in DC long enough that I forget how much I like real bagels. But then I come back to New York for Thanksgiving and the whole sad little fantasy universe I’ve constructed for myself in which DC’s bad bagels aren’t a big deal collapses.

Kevin Drum does a little wondering as well (“Bagels!,” MoJo, 28 November 2008)

It’s hard for me to remain on topic here because Washington, D.C. is such a miserable hole of a city. It would be hard to come up with a single factor in which New York was not vastly better of a city. The only reason that anyone tolerates D.C. is that it’s the political and intellectual capitol of the country.

That said, whenever I go to New York I have a list of things that I want to do and every time it includes bagels. This visit included bagels on two out of three mornings. My friend has been living three blocks from Tal Bagels so it has been pretty convenient, but on other visits I have commuted for bagels.

I’ve heard a number of the theories (the municipal water), but I’d have to say that I think it’s a gestalt. The bagels themselves are better: crunchier on the outside, chewier on the inside. But the schemers are better too (we brought back a tub of the olive cream cheese and another of the tofu, which rather than being some vegan concession has a flavor zestier and brighter than the cream cheeses). And most important is the ambiance. Woody places with a bunch of working-class artisans in black pants, white t-shirts, white aprons, and white paper hats, with a lot of hurry and attitude is different than the hired gun Ethiopians at Au-bon-Pan. A bagel shop is a stylized thing in New York. The cream cheeses are arrayed in gigantic bowls under glass, along with a host of other Jewish foods: smoked fish, knishs, couscous salads.

My favorite bagel places in New York are Ess-a-bagle (359 1st Avenue, Manhattan, New York 10010, official site here) and Tal Bagels (977 1st Avenue, Manhattan, New York 10022), both very Jewish, and The Bagel Store (247 Bedford Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11211), a Williamsburg hipster joint, but still unbelievably good.

Thanksgiving in Manhattan and the Bronx

View of the Throgs Neck Bridge from City Island, New York, 28 November 2008

No blogging as I spent Thanksgiving with the usual crew in New York. Dinner was at the friends’ Beekman Place apartment overlooking the East River, Roosevelt Island and the 59th Street Bridge. Then we all rented a place for the night on City Island, in the Long Island Sound just off the Bronx. Pictured above is a view of the Throgs Neck Bridge from the southern tip of the island.

Everything Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success, hit the stores today. As a loser, I’m not super-enthused about successful people. That said, I’ve become a big Malcolm Gladwell fan, so here are a few links.

He’s just the sort of person who should have a blog; and he has one. He maintains an archive of his published writings, as does The New Yorker where he is a staff writer. His previous two books are The Tipping Point (2000) and Blink (2005).

He’s presented on some of his ideas at the 2006 and 2007 New Yorker conferences. He’s been on Q&A with Brian Lamb. Apparently Charlie Rose is a big fan because Mr. Gladwell had been on his show seven times. NPR has done a number of profiles, interviews and reviews which can be found in their archive. And of course he’s given a TED Talk. It’s on the origin of extra chunky pasta sauce and the proliferation within product lines. More fundamentally it’s on the death of Platonism in the commercial food industry.

He’s been profiled in Fast Company (Sacks, Danielle, “The Accidental Guru,” January 2005), The New York Times (Donadio, Rachel, “The Gladwell Effect,” 5 February 2006) and now for his latest book New York Magazine (Zengerle, Jason, “Geek Pop Star,” 9 November 2008).

I used one of his articles as the basis for a little snark with “Malcolm Gladwell’s Infinite Monkey Theorem” (27 May 2008).

The funny thing you’ll notice if you follow a few of these links is that the hair isn’t the only big thinker factor. Despite a considerable speaker’s fee, Mr. Gladwell doesn’t own many suits.

The Ouroboros Economy II

A few months ago I took the opportunity of the Business Week cover depicting the economy as ouroboros for a few snickers (“Ouroboros to Mise en Abyme,” 28 July 2008). Now the ouroboros economy makes another appearance, this time in the much more serious pages of The New Yorker (Lanchester, John, “Melting into Air,” 10 November 2008, pp. 80-84). Again, I don’t have anything in mind: it’s just an icon shopping around for more meanings. But Mr. Lanchester gives it a novel and grandiose go:

… finance, like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts — a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English. In poetry, this moment took place with the publication of “The Waste Land.” In classical music, it was, perhaps, the première of “The Rite of Spring.” Jazz, dance, architecture, painting — all had comparable moments. The moment in finance came in 1973, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Political Economy titled “The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities,” by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes.

The revolutionary aspect of Black and Scholes’s paper was an equation that enabled people to calculate the price of financial derivatives based on the value of the underlying asset. … The trade in these derivatives was hampered, however, by the fact that — owing to the numerous variables of time and risk — no one knew how to price them. The Black-Scholes formula provided a way to do so. It was a defining moment in the mathematization of the market. The trade in derivatives took off, to the extent that the total market in derivative products around the world is counted in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. Nobody knows the exact figure, but the notional amount certainly exceeds the total value of all the world’s economic output, roughly sixty-six trillion dollars, by a huge factor — perhaps tenfold.

It seems wholly contrary to common sense that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves. With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense. …

If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings — a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect.

The Pink Pentagon

Has Foggy Bottom become the pink Pentagon? It now seems that it will be a routine part of every presidential administration — or at least of their supporters — for the next couple of cycles to tout its advanced thinking on gender issues by pointing to its high-level appointment of a woman to the position of Secretary of State.

Two out of the last three Secretaries of State have been women (Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice). Candidate Obama seemed to have Samantha Power on the Secretary of State shortlist and now it seems as if Senator Clinton is on the way there, purportedly to mollify her female supporters by providing the Senator with some role.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon remains an impenetrable bastion of masculinity. And not just men, but manly men. Donald Rumsfeld practically snorted puffs of superheated testosterone out his nose. Not only are women inconceivable, but apparently even so effeminate as Democrats at large are no longer allowed at the Department of Defense. President Clinton selected a Republican to head the Pentagon (William Cohen) and President-elect Obama has rumors emanating that he will retain Secretary Gates for a period, or of Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

Nominating a woman to run the Pentagon would cause a political firestorm of retrograde gender imaginings, still lurking just below the surface. It will be the true, last hold out against female equality.

The two institutions have both obviously become overloaded with psychological meaning. The State Department, with its constant bias toward diplomacy, is the redoubt of verbal skills, much denigrated now that it turns out that women possess them in spades over men. And the State Department has only become an acceptable appointment for a woman as the department has declined in stature. It’s budget has been allowed to deteriorate away over the years, ambassadorships have become powerless rewards for campaign contributors and responsibility for real foreign policy making has all moved over to the Pentagon. Now that it’s the department of international social work, it’s safe to leave the place to a woman. The State Department has even got a double entendre in its unofficial name — Foggy Bottom — to suggest that it’s the proper place to send the skirts, especially the bulging middle-aged ones. They may as well run a knitting circle out of the Secretary’s office suite, whereas the Pentagon is a bastion of manly action.

If what is required is someone who can talk our enemies to death, why not go with one of the original rumors, and make Senator John Kerry the Secretary of State? If Senator Clinton is going to get a role other than leading the charge for healthcare reform in Congress, then let’s retire this gender-reifying myth and send her to the Pentagon.

The Transition from Idealism to Power

For all the idealism and slogans of the campaign trail, what I see in the moves of the last few days — in the selection of Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff, in his politicianly reticence at Friday’s press conference, in his meeting with Senator McCain — is a man making preparations for the actuality of governance, of the exercise of power, of making the necessary compromises between idealism and the hard reality of the achievable.

Along similar lines, here’s Ezra Klein (“Legislator-in-Chief,” TAPPED, 16 November 2008):

… the success of Obama’s presidency is dependent on his ability to navigate an increasingly dysfunctional Congress, and that the ability to pass bills through the institution requires pretty fair knowledge of how it works and pretty good relationships with the key players. Clinton didn’t have that. He entered office and showed very little respect for congressional expertise, surrounding himself with trusted associates from Arkansas and young hotshots from his campaign. Obama is not making the same mistake.

I’m essentially pro-establishment. All that hoary stuff of Sarah Palin on the campaign trail about shaking up Washington and the evils of Washington insiders is just junk pander to an ignorant public. Washington, D.C. — any center of power — is a complex place. Knowledge of the workings of Congress, of the bureaucracy, of all the hangers-on, especially the unofficial, undocumented byways, counts.

A point that S. made this weekend is that there is a difference between being an advocate and being a policy maker in a position of power. Al Gore has said that he feels he can best advance his agenda from outside of government and that may sound like something that someone in his position just says. But Mr. Gore can adopt an uncompromising position that the United States should be completely off of fossil fuels within ten years. And President-elect Obama has embraced that position on the campaign trail. But here is the contrast of actual governance. President Obama will probably pursue a more mixed agenda on energy and climate change because he has to make policy of principle and that will involve grabbing at what can be had in the current political environment, bringing in fence-sitters and even some opponents to a comprehensive, compromise package.

I would say that so far President-elect Obama is looking pretty shrewd and his choices are already giving me confidence.

Note on a Leftist Apologia for Military Studies

I’m a leftist, though sufficiently idiosyncratic of one that many others so identifying look askance at such a claim on my part. One factor in my intellectual homelessness is that one of my primary concerns is the martial.

America abounds in the sort of gear head who revels in military tech divorced of any consideration of the context in which it came to be, or the kind of person who believes in honor and thrills at tales of gory sacrifice. The entire business model of the History Channel is built around bring together these people with endless re-edits of stock footage of the Second and Vietnam wars. I am not a person who so thrills. At this point, I intend to devote myself to issues military, but if I could turn my life into something greater than a few thousand calorie-a-day contribution to the heat death of the universe, it would be the first principle of the Charter of the United Nations, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

But the question remains, why the obsession with war? Why the minutia and the machines and the faux generalship?

The left has eschewed any consideration of the nuts and bolts of military issues in favor of wholesale condemnation, no further consideration required. The outcome of this position is that having nothing to say that resonates with voters is an abdication to the military thoughts of less scrupulous elements of the polity. In the hurly-burly of politics, time is the most scarce commodity. Having a plan at the ready when the moment strikes is the better part of victory in politics. And in those last three principles, operative to the determent of the left, can be found the whole explanation for the present imbroglio of the United States in the Middle East.

To effectively shunt war aside, the left must possess a minimum of military credibility. We must be able to deal with war in its own terms.

I think there is a Hegelian unfolding of the world spirit in the political-military happenings of the world where there is no around, only through (the truth of the flower is as much in the bud as the blossom). War will not halt, it can only be dampened. It is not merely enough to condemn nuclear weapons. It will be a varied and arduous road between world-ending arsenals and total disarmament. It is a road that must be plotted in detail, traversed along the whole of its track. There is no substitute for the compromising and half-measures of disarmament. To hate and fear something so much, one must also love it, revel and writhe in it.

Most consider strategy and military studies an entirely instrumental practice, whether pursued for the ends of national power, or for the excise of war as a scourge of humanity. I think there is more to it than that. There is something, many things, profound in war and violence.

In so far as society and its precepts are not optional, there is a continuity between force and violence and civilization. War is everywhere, even amidst peace. War is the substrate of peace. War is natural and peace an artifice.

What has me thinking in this direction is the excerpting by James Marcus (“Turning a Page,” History News Network, 5 November 2008) of a few lines from Tobias Wolff’s In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War:

It’s the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It’s the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice.

Our thoughts on morality and justice, taken amidst the consolations of society, are pat and facile, so unfamiliar with the whole gamut of relevant circumstances of life are the majority of us. It is only from this side of the wall separating civilization from nature that someone could assert something so stupid as a right to life. Forces of the universe assert otherwise. Very few of us have been caused to fundamentally doubt this. And not merely to doubt in the abstract, but in the concrete of concrete: do I have a right to my life?

In the martial is more than machines and terrain and maneuver. There is a weltanschauung to be found there. It ought to be explicated.

The Current Climate

The Onion’s post-election analysis (“Nation Finally Shitty Enough To Make Social Progress,” Issue 44-45, 5 November 2008):

Carrying a majority of the popular vote, Obama did especially well among women and young voters, who polls showed were particularly sensitive to the current climate of everything being fucked. Another contributing factor to Obama’s victory, political experts said, may have been the growing number of Americans who, faced with the complete collapse of their country, were at last able to abandon their preconceptions and cast their vote for a progressive African-American.

Citizens with eyes, ears, and the ability to wake up and realize what truly matters in the end are also believed to have played a crucial role in Tuesday’s election.

No Sleep for George W. Bush

Celebrating the Obama victory, Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, 3:35 AM, 5 November 2008

After results and President Elect Barack Obama’s victory speech, at about two in the morning, I got on my bike and rode down to the White House where a huge crowd had assembled along Pennsylvania Avenue to taunt the lame duck. President Bush probably didn’t sleep well last night. Hundreds of people were there screaming and carrying on. People brought improvised percussion instruments. People chanted, “Move your shit, move your shit” in the direction of the White House.

People were blaring their car horns all throughout the city, but I Street, the street just north of Lafayette Park, was the unrelenting car horn epicenter. Nearly everyone who drove past stood on their horn the whole way. People shouted out their car windows as they passed. Pedestrians took over streets, drivers too caught up to care. Over at Franklin Park someone with a built out car stereo opened the doors and cranked it. Another guy stripped down to his boxer-briefs and danced on top of his car. It was a true spontaneous street party.

DCist has pictures and stories at “Washington, D.C. Celebrates Obama Victory Well Into the Morning” and “More D.C. Election Night Dispatches.” Flickr has more from around D.C. SLOG has great pictures of the same from Seattle at “Where is the party right now?,” “More of Your Photos From Last Night” and “It’s 2:30 in the Morning….” Neighbors hauled the stereo up to the roof to blare a dance remix of “Don’t Stop Believing” to street revelers.