The Buddhist cowboy

How did I not know of this book?  I'm talking about a 100-year old classic that I discovered by accident.

Since I browse the e-book section of our public library website by looking at the recent additions, Owen Wister's The Virginian showed up.  It's recently gone out of copyright, being 110 years old. So, there are free e-books of the text aplenty (for example, at Project Gutenberg or at Google).

Sure, it's a Western.  It's apparently the grand-daddy of them all, the book that set the image of the tall, silent cowboy who's quick to the draw.  But the book is a lot more than that. It's sad that the genre that this book spawned ended up so debased. Because The Virginian is a book with a moral code, a philosophy, an outlook on life.

If one didn't know better, one would say that the Virginian's moral code is quite Eastern (and I mean Eastern as in Buddhist or Hindu). He will never start trouble, but once in a battle, he will do his duty even if it involves killing.  As he says about himself, he has never killed for pleasure or for profit. Krishna could have saved himself a thousand verses of the Bhagavadgita if he'd simply used that line.

It's also a quite good love story, and a story of a man's connection to the wild, untamed frontier.  As a bonus,  you'll find references galore to Yellowstone, the Tetons and the Snake river -- places that to this day remain quasi-mythical.

If, like me, you hadn't heard of this book before, do yourself a favor.  Read it.

Making a cynic rethink

I'm as cynical about journalists and financial companies as the next person, but some things have to make a cynic rethink.

On Saturday morning (i.e. after the markets closed), the New York Times published a story that said that Walmart had been paying bribes in Mexico. Apparently, they wanted to build stores and build them fast. Other large chains, notably France's Carrefour, left Mexico because they couldn't navigate Mexico's bureaucracy fast enough. Walmart, though, was willing to pay "gestores", essentially middlemen who would (for a 6% fee) take care of paying off the bureaucrats.  As a result, they pretty much captured Mexico's retail market. A Wal-Mex employee, disgruntled at being passed over for a promotion, first complained to Walmart's management in Arkansas about the bribes. Walmart, though, buried the resulting investigation and the NY Times reporter sniffed this out after five years. This is big news because paying bribes in foreign countries is as illegal in the United States as it is in France.

What is it about this story that makes me less cynical?  On Monday, after the markets opened, Walmart stock fell by $12 billion.  Think about it.  Hundreds of people knew about the NY Times investigation -- the NY times reporters, their editors, office staff, their sources including the disgruntled employee who sat on this for five years, the SEC, Walmart management.  The list goes on. Yet, it was a surprise to the markets.  The story did not leak for over 6 months.

The New York Times is based on the same island as the largest, richest hedge funds in the world -- people who would have paid a fortune to learn that this story was in the works. And yet, the newspaper story was a $12 billion surprise.

Not the Whole Truth

The ten-year-old's class is going to be taking tests all of next week. This is part of the whole No-Child-Left-Behind bench-marking as far as I can tell. The teachers are all quite nervous and since many Oklahoman kids come to school hungry, the teachers wanted some of the parents to send along nutritious breakfasts to the entire class. This is on the theory that a non-hungry kid might concentrate better on exam day.

The wife volunteered to send muffins for Monday morning.

The kid was lobbying for lemon-poppy-seed muffins. "Just make it out of a box you buy at the grocery store," he recommended.

"Why", I asked.  "So mom doesn't make something weird," he pleaded, "I want it to be normal."  That's his new mantra. He wants things to be normal, not weird. We are raising a total conformist!

"What kind of muffins are you making," asked the 10-year-old when he came in to see the mixer on the counter-top.

"Zucchini-carrot muffins," he was informed.

"Awwww!", said the kid. Of course he doesn't realize that this was not the only thing to awww about. He doesn't realize that "normal" muffins are made of all-purpose flour. All he's known his whole life has been whole-wheat stuff.

Later, he inspected the muffins. "Can I just tell people they are chocolate-chip?," he asked, "they are brown."

"No ... you can't make up stuff."

"I can't see the vegetables in them anyway.  And mom's put raisins in them. Can I just say they are raisin muffins?"

Facebook friends: please keep me entertained

You know the two topics you are supposed to avoid at dinner parties? Politics and religion? Some days, it seems that my Facebook feed is nothing but those two topics.

The day after Easter are these two competing status updates:

Meanwhile, the political left is screaming about judicial activists, over-testing of kids, global warming deniers, etc. ...

Somehow, I seem to have no political right-wingers on my Facebook friend list.  I'm pretty sure they're screaming about something though.

In case you are wondering, my favorite Facebook posts are pictures (with people is better, but I can't post an example on the internets):

and status updates like these:

Get cracking people!

Not just women

I wish this trend, of manufacturers changing sizes upwards so that women's feelings are not hurt ("I'm still a size 12"), had been limited to women.

Unfortunately, it now affects even men's jeans.  This is horrifying because a size 32x34 is supposed to indicate a 32-inch waist and a 34-inch length.  It used to be that I could just go pick up a pair of jeans. Now, I have to actually try them on because the size on the label can be as much as 2 inches off.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: great book, but ...

I devoured Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity" in one sitting. It is an engrossing narrative of life in a Mumbai slum.

Gross national statistics do not really the tell the story of how India is growing at 8% a year, pulling millions of Indians every year out of poverty. "How do the poor become less poor?," Ms. Boo asks, and sets out to try to answer the question by following a group of slum dwellers over several years.

Three primary ways, she summarizes: (1) being able to find a niche and work really hard (2) working political connections and widespread corruption to run various scams (3) pursuing education to gain a toehold in the service industry.  Nicely enough, as happens in tightly woven narratives, she has one protagonist for each of the ways by which poor people pull themselves by their bootstraps.

The problem though is that the endemic corruption of Indian society makes life unpredictable. Although progress is gradual, poor people are apt to regress very quickly: corrupt government officials and the system can kill the poor off (literally) or jail them or simply extort their new-found prosperity away.

Much as I loved the book, I had the same concerns that one has about photographers of natural disasters: (1) is it really true or was the photograph staged? and (2) why didn't the photographer rush the bloodied victim to the hospital instead of taking pictures? (3) does the victim in question want to be photographed that way?

In Ms. Boo's case, she takes great care to address the first question. She says that no names have been changed, that everything is cross-validated and that many of the events depicted are on videotape. But this makes the question of #2 much more urgent because the frame around which the book is wrapped is that of a wrongly accused young man. If Ms. Boo had videographic evidence of what happened (and she claims she does), why didn't she use it to get the lad out of the jail where he was severely beaten? As for #3, she claims that the residents of the slum cooperated even when they knew they did not have any say over what she wrote about them in the book. Such an approach is very good to retain balance when reporting on powerful people, but when reporting on the extremely poor, it is highly manipulative. At one point, she relates how a wannabe-middle-class woman has a sexual encounter with a police man on her 40th birthday. That this 40-year old is the mother of Ms. Boo's best sources makes Ms. Boo's betrayal even more horrible.

So, I loved the book but I do not recommend it.