Monday, December 8, 2008

On... a Lot of Topics


The praise from both left and right for Obama’s initial slate of financial appointments has been almost unanimously effusive. But not from me. My main complaint is that a great opportunity was missed – the appointment of Joseph Stiglitz to either Treasury Secretary (instead of Tim Geithner) or head of the National Economic Council (instead of Larry Summers). Apparently, because of decade-old bad blood between Summers and Stiglitz, there was no room for Stiglitz as part of the new economic team.

The best argument for a Stiglitz role was proffered by Michael Hirsh last week in a Newsweek online
 piece. Here are a few excerpts:

“Stiglitz, more than anyone on the Washington scene, was the biggest fly in the ointment of “free-market fundamentalism” pressed on the world in the 90s by Summers, Geithner and their mentor, former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin – advice that has now contributed to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.”

“Stiglitz has been the leading voice opposed to the mindless liberalization of capital flows that brought us to where we are today.”

“In a spate of books, essays and speeches dating from the early 90s, Stiglitz denounced Rubin’s support for repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, which separated commercial from investment banking.”

“As far back as 1990, Stiglitz argued in a paper against securitizing mortgages and selling them…”

Yesterday, even the New York Times’
 Frank Rich, who has been wildly supportive of Obama, chimed in: “In our current financial quagmire, there have also been those who had the wisdom to sound alarms before Rubin, Summers or Geithner did. Among them were Joseph Stiglitz…”

An excellent illustration of Stiglitz’s understanding of the economic crisis can be gleaned from a piece he wrote in the December 2008 Vanity Fair. (Because of the magazine’s long lead time, the essay was written months earlier, before Lehman Brothers, AIG and the bailout.)

As Michael Hirsh concluded his essay, “Obama has made a point of declaring that he wants a dissonant voices in his administration. So why not Joe Stiglitz?”

Why not, indeed?


In my November 3 post, the day before the election, I made a prediction of the electoral vote count. My guess was predicated on the assumption that all nine battleground states – Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia – would swing to Obama. The other 42 contests (including Washington, DC) were pretty well decided well in advance of the election and needed no crystal ball. My forecast called for Obama to receive 375 electoral votes and McCain 163 (270 were needed to win). The final results -- Obama received 365 votes. I was 10 votes too optimistic

I made two mistakes. The lesser of my errors was in the Nebraska outcome. Nebraska is one of two states that does not require all its electoral votes to go to the popular vote winner (Maine is the other). Obama received one of its five electoral votes.

The greater of my errors lay in Missouri, a state which prides itself on almost always having voted for the winning presidential candidate. It didn’t this time. McCain received 3,903 more votes than Obama out of a total of almost three million cast. But in a development harking back to the Florida vote in the 2000 election, Ralph Nader was a spoiler once again; he got 17,813 votes in Missouri, over four times McCain’s winning margin. It’s not a stretch to assume that most of the Nader votes would have gone to Obama had Nader not entered the race. Missouri’s 11 electoral votes went to McCain.

So except for the Nader effect and my ignoring that Nebraska had proportional electoral voting, I would have come up with the
 exact electoral outcome. But as we say in golf, “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

Picture 1


General Motors
 On April 14, 1997, my brother Harold and I met for dinner at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham, Michigan, with Rick Wagoner (now the embattled CEO of General Motors) and several of his associates. The purpose of our meeting was to discuss the Rosen Motors hybrid electric powertrain that we had developed for use into passenger automobiles. We had hoped that General Motors would consider it for one of their models, especially since we had used a Saturn as one of our test beds (the other was a Mercedes.) Alas, we didn’t get the order, but the meal was delicious and the company gracious.

Flash forward to the New York Times of December 6, 2008. In a
 quote from their lead director, George Fisher: “We were late on hybrids… That’s probably a mistake, in retrospect.”

 really big mistake.

Diagram from Time magazine of the Rosen Motors hybrid-electric powertrain

Tesla Motors For the last few years, Tesla has been the darling of the press, and even of the blogosphere, includingThrough Rosen-colored Glasses. But now that the company is shipping its Tesla Roadster sports car – over 100 have been delivered to customers -- some of these erstwhile admirers are now trying to knock the company off the pedestal they put it on. Build ‘em up, tear ‘em down.

A few weeks ago, Daniel Lyons of Newsweek took some
 shots at the company: “A classic Silicon Valley product – it’s late and over budget, has gone through loads of redesigns, still has bugs and, at $109,000, cost more than originally planned.” I’m shocked, shocked. I don’t know why inventors can’t create world-changing innovations on time, on budget and bug-free. Maybe it’s not easy.

Then a week ago,
 Randall Stross of the New York Times piled on with a snide, negative view of the company’s prospects. (“…woefully immature technology…don’t-even-ask expensive…not much more than a functioning concept car…”)

How familiar this all seems to me. On the one hand we have entrepreneurs that are killing themselves to bring new technology and new products to market, and in this case to revolutionize a century-old industry that has embarrassingly lagged technologically and ecologically. These entrepreneurs may succeed, or they may not – they understand this going into the fray. But they’re busting their butts trying to change the world.

And then we have the “observers,” those who opine from the outside. Those who can, do; those who can’t, opine. It reminds me of the famous quote by “Engine” Charlie Wilson, who ran the Defense Department during the Eisenhower years. Fed up with outside criticism about his managing of the Department, he offered this observation: “I always liked bird dogs better than kennel dogs myself – you know, the ones that will get out and hunt for food rather than sit on their fannies and yelp.”

Let’s hear it for the bird dogs.


One bird-dog that’s having a difficult time now is Eclipse Aviation. Even after raising almost $1 billion in private funds over the last decade, the company ran out of money and was forced to declare bankruptcy last month. It’s continuing to operate in bankruptcy, and its assets will probably be purchased at auction by its chairman’s affiliated European company and then continue to manufacture. But it’s a sad illustration of how difficult it is for an upstart to penetrate an established industry, even a billion-dollar upstart. And it’s even more difficult in the midst of a world economic crisis.


How about this one? You check into a hotel and there is a brand-new flat-screen television set. That’s the good news. The bad news is that most of the programming on it is transmitted in the low-definition aspect ratio of 4x3. The TV, however, is set to stretch the image to the high-definition aspect ratio of 16x9. So unless you’re getting a high def signal, you’ll be looking at a lot of horizontally stretched fat faces and fat bodies. It drives me nuts. Sometimes the remote control can correct this, and sometimes the hotel’s engineer can do it, but more often than not I’m faced with staring at a distorted image.

To illustrate, look at these images. The first one is a 4x3 image shown in the proper aspect ratio. The second takes the 4x3 image and stretches it horizontally to fill the 16x9 screen on the wide-screen TV set. Most of you think of Obama as lean; not those of you who see him on the typical hotel room television set.

4 by 3 aspect ratio

16 by 9 aspect ratio

A second pet peeve relates to adjectives that journalists sometimes use in describing my getting longer in the tooth. Often, they’re unobjectionable or euphemistic words – “veteran,” “long-serving,” “experienced.” Now that I’m a former person and am rarely interviewed, it’s no longer much of an issue.

But then the December 2008 Harper’s Magazine arrives in the mail, and, being right on top of the breaking news, it carries a piece on the New York Philharmonic’s historic
 February trip to North Korea -- only 10 months after the fact! In any event, look at the adjective they use to describe me:

“In the middle of the room was Benjamin M. Rosen, an elderly man with a cheeky smile...”

Now, I ask you, can an elderly person blog? (BTW, I sort of liked “cheeky.”)


For those of you with iPhones, consider adding these free applications: Shazam and Google Mobile App. Shazam miraculously recognizes and identifies virtually every recorded piece in the popular genre after listening to a 13-second sample of the music.

Google Mobile App performs a voice search. Instead of typing in your search, you simply say the search words, and shazam! -- oops, that’s the other app -- there is the search result on the screen (most of the time, anyway). I’d characterize both programs as remarkable and leading candidates for “how do they do that?”


The 52-story glass-and-steel building that we live in at the foot of Central Park West was formerly, as most New Yorkers know, the Gulf +Western building. But what was there before the Gulf+Western building? Here’s the answer:

1 CPW 2008
Columbus Circle, New York, photographed December 2008

1 CPW 1941
Columbus Circle, New York, photographed Thanksgiving 1941


Donna has been heavily involved for the last year with Prospect.1, a new biennial that opened in New Orleans November 1 and runs through mid-January. It is the largest biennial of international contemporary art ever organized in the United States and is expected to provide a healthy boost to New Orleans tourism. It should also enhance the perception of the city as a cultural center with a breadth that extends well beyond jazz. Indeed, over 80 artists from around the world are showing their works in 30 different venues around the city -- museums, historic buildings, and found sites throughout the city.

If you’re looking for an excuse to go to New Orleans, consider the Prospect .1 biennial. BTW, it’s free.

I took a lot of photographs of the art on display there, and many of the national media and art publications have featured these works in the last couple of months. But what hasn’t been published are scenes from the opening party held on Halloween at Antoine’s restaurant. Over 800 people (I didn’t know the restaurant could hold that many people) in formal attire, in casual attire, in costume, in masks, in whatever – it was quite an evening. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

















Monday, November 3, 2008

Driving the Tesla Roadster

Two weeks ago, the evening before we were to leave our Manhattan apartment on a 10-day trip to London, we received a phone call informing us that our Tesla Roadster would arrive the next morning at our Litchfield County home. We immediately headed north. Nearly three years after ordering the car, and a year and a half after its initially promised delivery date, it arrived.

It was worth waiting for.

Tesla near dam

Tesla donna

Because of the imminent trip abroad, I only had a few hours to test drive it. And then, after returning home from London, once again I had only a short time to drive it before heading off for New Orleans for the opening of
Prospect.1, the new international art biennial. So here are my initial impressions.

Before taking it on public roads, I had to make the dreaded trip to the nearest Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles office to get license plates. What a contrast that was – registering a 21
st-century automobile with a 19th-century government process. Finally, after two hours tortuous waiting, I got the plates, rushed home and then started fulfilling my electric-sports-car odyssey.

The bottom line

It’s an exhilarating experience. The outstanding feature, as compared with any other car I’ve ever owned, sports cars included, is the remarkable acceleration at any speed. It springs away from a standing start. At speed, it passes other vehicles effortlessly. It is quite simply a terrestrial rocket ship.

Perhaps the other outstanding feature is one that I’m reminded of by the “curious incident of the dog that didn’t bark” (in the Sherlock Holmes mystery
 Silver Blaze). That feature, of course, is the Tesla’s sound, or rather, the lack of it. Curiously, there is just no sound. You would expect a high-performance sports car to make itself known, to roar, to growl. Not this one; it doesn’t even purr. It is spookily quiet (until high speed when the wind noise comes into play).

This sexy-looking car definitely draws a crowd. It’s just over 3½ feet high, seductively styled, very attractive. What’s surprising to me is how many people who encounter it actually recognize it as a Tesla. Clearly the company’s PR campaign has had an impact – e.g.,
 60 Minutes last month, Time Magazine this week, which in its 50 Best Inventions of the 2008 feature selected the Roadster as the No. 2 invention.

About the Roadster

Whenever I park, a crowd gathers and I’m always asked the same questions about its acceleration, speed, range, energy source, gearing, recharge time, price, weight, availability, factory, name, origin. I’m considering printing up a card with the following answers:

Acceleration: The promised spec is 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds. While I’ve yet to confirm this with actual measurement, I suspect from my whiplash it’s very close to that. (I just downloaded an application on my iPhone that promises to measure the 0-60mph time. We’ll see.)

Speed: 125mph max, electronically limited.

Range: The nominal range is 225 miles. I haven’t had a chance to confirm this yet. The main concern with range is that you want to make sure you have enough energy left in the batteries to be able to return to your charging base. When a 110V portable recharger becomes available soon, it’ll make me a little less nervous about straying more than 100 miles from home base. (Our Connecticut-to-Manhattan distance is 87 miles – just about at the cusp of my confidence.)

Energy source: The reason for the remarkable acceleration, which compares favorably with the highest-price, most powerful sports cars in the world, is that the Tesla is powered by a 185kW (248 HP) electric motor, with the energy stored in 6,831 lithium-ion batteries.

An electric motor has the salutary characteristic of providing 100% of its torque at zero rpm. This contrasts with an internal combustion engine whose maximum torque lies in the middle of its rpm range. As the chart below shows, the Tesla delivers high torque (red line) from zero to 6,000 rpm, and high power (blue line) up to its 14,000 rpm redline. (The black line is an internal-combustion torque curve.)


Gearing: A conventional engine requires complex gearing to provide high torque from a standing start. The Tesla has a single gear – zero to 125 mph without shifting, either manually or automatically.

Recharge time
: At present, recharging is only available at 220 V. A portable 110V adapter kit will be available soon. In the meantime, I had to install a dedicated 220V, 90-amp line in the garage (at no trivial expense). When fully discharged, the batteries will recharge in 3.5 hours (at 110 V, the recharge time from full discharge could exceed 24 hours.)

recharge 2
220V recharging cable

Price: Originally $100,000, now $109,000. The forthcoming Model S sedan, scheduled for 2011 delivery, will be less than half that price.

Weight: 2,732 pounds, of which 992 pounds are batteries.

Availability: The company has delivered 50 cars to date, and is now producing them at the rate of 10 per week. With a backlog of 1,200 orders, Tesla’s plan is to increase the rate to 30 to 40 per week in the spring.

Why is it called Tesla? The company name pays homage to Nikola Tesla, one of the great and prolific inventors in American history. The Serbian scientist-engineer arrived in the United States in the late 1800s to work with Thomas Edison, only to have a bitter falling out with him. (The Tesla-Edison rivalry is one of the great stories waiting to be dramatized – the foreign PhD who converted theory into practice, versus the self-taught empiricist Edison, who favored endless laboratory experimentation.) Tesla invented many of the seminal products in technological history, including the induction motor, the alternating current transmission system, and wireless radio (Marconi unfairly received a patent first, but Tesla’s invention actually preceded Marconi’s. Tesla was vindicated, and awarded the patent, some 50 years later).

Where is it made? The body, a modified Lotus Elise sports car, is manufactured in England. The powertrain is made and final assembly performed in San Carlos, California. The Model S will be manufactured in San Jose, California.

Ancillary benefits of Tesla ownership

No sales tax: Because it’s an alternative energy vehicle, the Connecticut 6% sales tax is waived. (This benefit varies state to state.)
High-occupancy vehicle lanes are available even with a single passenger.
No fluids to check or oil to change. No oil filters or air filters to change.
Good citizen. The satisfaction of knowing that one is making a small contribution toward reducing greenhouse gases, noxious emissions and petroleum consumption.

My concerns

Range is clearly an issue until the portable 110V recharger becomes available. Until then, I plan to stay relatively close to home.
The interior space is, shall we say, snug. It’s a bit of a challenge to get into the car, and a bit more of a challenge to get out, particularly if the top is on.
The trunk space is limited. The good news is that the trunk will hold one set of golf clubs; the bad news is that’s allit will hold.

Start-ups and giants:

Aptera: Last weekend, we were in Carlsbad, California, for a Caltech board retreat. Carlsbad also happens to be the home of Aptera Motors. Aptera, it turns out, is funded by Idealab, a company headed by my friend and fellow Caltech board member, Bill Gross. Bill arranged for me to get a test drive in the prototype Aptera electric car. Slated for 2009 delivery in both all-electric and range-extended hybrid versions, this radically designed three-wheel vehicle wins the space-age-looks award. It is a show-stopper. With a remarkably low coefficient of drag of 0.15, the car promises outstanding efficiency. Prices are expected to start at $27,000.

Aptera - ben

Aptera - rear
Aptera prototype

Chevy Volt: This 4-to-5 seat series hybrid, or range-extended electric car, is General Motors’ big bet on the future. It hopes to ship in 2010, or just before Tesla ships its Model S sedan.

chevy volt
Chevy Volt

Other competitors: Many of the world’s leading auto manufacturers are also moving toward developing some type of electric and/or series-hybrid car. One should not underestimate their resolve to compete in this new technology marketplace. We who came up through the high-tech industries, and at one time had our sights on taking on the auto industry, tend to underestimate the ability of the auto industry to make very-high-volume products with very high functionality at very low cost. They have over 100 years experience down the learning curve, and have gotten pretty good at this type of manufacturing. They also have a huge amount of capacity available in which they could ramp up pretty quickly -- if they bring out the right products at the right price.

Tesla’s opportunity 

Is there then a place for a start-up to compete with this potential electric-car onslaught from the Big Guys? Well, the Tesla Roadster reminds me a lot of my experience with the Compaq Portable. The latter was our beachhead into the computer industry in 1983, an industry that was then dominated by the IBM desktop. We as a start-up couldn’t compete head-on with IBM by selling desktops to corporate customers. We needed to create something that IBM didn’t have. So we introduced a product that was differentiable, one that IBM didn’t offer – a portable computer. A year later, when we had the beachhead established – broad corporate customer base, established channels of distribution, high-volume and low-cost manufacturing capability, in-depth engineering team, worldwide supply chain, international brand name – we could then move on to compete head-on with IBM in desktops. Which we did. Successfully.

Similarly, the Roadster is Tesla’s beachhead into the automotive business. Tesla makes electric cars; the establishment makes internal-combustion-engine vehicles. Tesla has two years to establish all those corporate capabilities required to compete with the giants when they finally invade Tesla’s turf. Compaq was able to do it against a pretty formidable competitor and go from start-up to a $40 billion company in two decades. Tesla has the same opportunity.

In the meantime I’m really happy that Tesla Motors brought out the Roadster. I’m having a hell of a good time with it, even though I’m apparently
 driving it too cautiously -- I haven’t got a single ticket yet.

1900 elec car
Electric car predecessor to the Tesla Roadster, circa 1900

Election Prediction

Almost 21 months ago, Barack Obama threw his hat into the presidential race. Having prevailed in a bitterly fought primary, he now faces the final test -- tomorrow’s general election. Because there are so few pundits proffering opinions on the outcome (hah!), I thought that I’d help fill the vacuum by sharing my thoughts with you. Actually, I have just two predictions.

First, we should have a pretty good idea of the outcome by 7:01pm EST. Why 7:01pm? Polls in Virginia, a key swing state, close at 7:00pm. Presumably, exit poll information will be released shortly thereafter. If the exit polls indicate momentum one way or the other, that should be a pretty useful harbinger for the other battlegrounds. (This, of course, assumes that the exit poll accuracy will be better than those data from 2004, when there were some seriously misleading signals.)

My prediction is that Virginia will go to Obama by at least the margins forecast by the polls (see below). projects a 4.7% margin, and 5.7%. This, then, would augur well for eight other key battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Virginia polls as of Nov. 3, 2008:

Picture 2

Picture 3

Here is my second prediction: as Virginia goes, so goes the election. My national election prediction is Obama 375 electoral votes, McCain 163. The state-by-state electoral predictions are below, with the swing states in

Picture 5

We shall soon know.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Letter from London: Theatre

Thinking of traveling to London? Now’s not a bad time. The pound is down from $2.10 during our last trip to “only” $1.73 today. As a result, prices have dropped from out-of-sight to merely jaw-dropping. But the weather’s perfect, the art and theatre scenes are lively, and you’d never know a worldwide financial crisis is enveloping us. Somehow, the looming trickle-down poverty hasn’t yet trickled down from the world of the Masters of the Universe to the ordinary restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues. London streets are jammed, the energy is high, and life goes on. So we’re here to take to take it all in, including a bunch of plays and a lot of art.


We started off with the Tates –Britain and Modern. At the former, the annual
 Turner Prize finalists had their work on display. The short list this year is made up of works of four British artists under 50. As in previous years, I left the display shaking my head, not in appreciation of the art, but in wonderment – what is this stuff?
Picture 2

But rather than my articulating what is really a rank amateur’s opinion, here are appraisals from the British art critics:

To spend time in this show is like spending the afternoon in the departure lounges of Heathrow, Schiphol, Tempelhof and Charles de Gaulle airports. Physically you've moved from place to place, but, at the end of the day, you don't know where you've been. (Richard Dorment,

The annual frenzy of entrail-throwing that is the Turner Prize. (Charles Darwent, Independent)

If ever you were thinking of giving the Turner Prize a miss, not rushing down to the show at Tate Britain, not tuning into the televised ceremony, then 2008 is the ideal year. (Laura Cumming, Observer)

Some years ago, Art Buchwald wrote an unforgettable column on the breaking of the “four-minute Louvre” record. Written on the 40th anniversary of Roger Bannister's breaking the four-minute mile barrier in 1954, Buchwald described how a museum-goer in Paris broke a similarly unattainable speed record for seeing the Louvre. He zipped through the Louvre, that is, the essential Louvre -- Mona Lisa, Winged Victory and Venus de Milo – in less than four minutes! I was reminded of this achievement Monday when I’m sure I shattered all speed records for viewing the Turner Prize exhibition. (An excerpt from Buchwald's very funny column can be seen here in his Washington Post obituary.)

The Turner Prize this year was (appropriately?) demoted to the basement of
 Tate Britain. Wending our way upstairs, we took in the stimulating Francis Bacon show, allowing us to leave the museum with a better appreciation of British art, historically if not prospectively.

On to
 Tate Modern for the Rothko show. As Michelin might say, worth a special detour. The master in a masterful exhibition.

Across the river from the Tate Modern was an installation in the Thames of a floating artwork by our good friend from Louisiana and New York,
 Margaret Evangeline. Her piece is one of seven works that is part of Drift 08, a platform to enhance the London art scene by placing floating works along the river in central London.

Picture 3

The British Museum special exhibition of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict was a treat. Hadrian, as I’m sure we all remember, reigned from AD 117-138, and ruled an empire that included much of Europe, northern Africa, and the Middle East.

 Frieze Art Fair in Regent Park was jammed, economic crisis or no. Surprisingly (to me), lots of painting.

At the new
 Saatchi Gallery, nary a pickled fish nor jeweled skull in sight. Instead, a surprisingly (to me)stimulating exhibition of contemporary Chinese art. One highlight by artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu: a roomful of robotic, wheelchair-bound world-leader likenesses rolling around the floor, never bumping into the museum-goers or into each other. Art meets science meets satire.
Picture 1

Other galleries
 around town benefited from the art collector influx for Frieze. Spent time at Waddington, White Cube and Alan Cristea, where a Julian Opie show just opened. Missed the Richter show at the Serpentine – had to save something for next time.

Although we live in New York just a few blocks from the Broadway theater district, and attend shows frequently, we feel this compulsion twice a year to fly to London to soak in the British theatre scene. Some reflections:

Acting: They do act well. Almost universally, even in the less than first-rate shows, the professionalism of the acting is striking. We’re constantly impressed by their diction and projection. (The latter quality is so often missing in the U.S. when film stars are on Broadway.) Maybe it’s because so many of the British actors train at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) instead of film or television, maybe it’s because so many of their résumés are larded with Shakespearean roles, maybe it’s because theatre is their first profession rather than their fill-in, maybe it’s because they have such great accents, or maybe it’s just because we’re Anglophiles. Whatever the reason, it’s rare that we don’t remark at the end of a play how outstandingly the lead actors and the ensemble performed.

Sound: Guess what? Amplified sound is not alive and well in London. Indeed, we’ve yet to hear an amplified voice in a straight dramatic show this week. On Broadway, where almost every show uses body mikes on the actors, the actors’ voices emanate from loudspeakers placed around the theater. Here, the sounds emanate from the actors’ mouths. How refreshing!

Ivanov: Not to be missed. A bravura performance by Kenneth Branagh, one of the finest, most versatile performers of our time. Tom Stoppard has adapted the Chekhov classic in a gripping, entertaining version. The large ensemble is universally terrific.

Creditors: Moving along from 19th-century Russia to 19th-century Sweden, this Strindberg play grips from start to finish. Whether focusing on the weaknesses of Chekhov’s characters or the flaws of Strindberg’s, these two plays go far to examine – painfully – the human condition. (BTW, the title "Creditors" is not related to the current credit crunch -- it refers to emotional, not financial, debts.)

Brief Encounter: Evoked by the 1945 David Lean movie, which in turn was based on an earlier Noël Coward play, this love story cum music-hall-revue cum farce cum movie misses often, but hits frequently enough to leave you with a smile on your face for most of the evening. Anyway, I’m a sucker for the Purple-Rose-of-Cairo technique of live actors magically dissolving into screen characters, and vice versa. Not a must see show, but not a disaster, either. (Faint praise, but what’s wrong with faint praise, anyway?)

Six Characters in Search of an Author: Pirandello was avant garde when he wrote this play 87 years ago, and it’s still avant garde. Almost impossible to describe – something to do with the question of what is real and what is fiction – it has to be experienced in what is a remarkably energetic production.

Now or Later: Well-reviewed by the London critics, but a rather modest, play about ethical choices facing a U. S. presidential candidate. A candidate who might say different things to different audiences? One who might try to hide family embarrassments? One who would do whatever necessary to get elected? Why, what presumption. I’m shocked, shocked. The British audience loved it. Can it be I’m getting too cynical?

Piaf: Revival of the “biodrama with music” (not listed as a musical, but it was a musical). Remarkable performance by (Argentinean) Elena Roger as the Little Sparrow, who sang all the songs in French, who inhabited Piaf in a stunning emotional display, and who received (what is fortunately unusual in London theatre) a standing O. But, oh, that creaky book.

The Norman Conquests: Another revival, this one of the wonderful 1973 Alan Ayckbourn comedy, albeit a comedy replete with poignant insights into the never-simple relationships between the sexes. A six-hour trilogy in one day – and it never flagged. Each of the three plays takes place contemporaneously in a different location of the same weekend house. As one reviewer wrote, be careful before you accept an invitation to spend a weekend in the country.

Monday, October 6, 2008



Today’s financial near meltdown:
 Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Adlai Stevenson said after losing the 1952 election in a landslide to Dwight Eisenhower, “ It hurts too much to laugh, but I’m too old to cry.”

As I’m writing this, the US stock market is down 4% after having plummeted 8% earlier in the day. For the year, the S&P is off 28%. A drop like this gets one’s attention. Some might say that blogging on a day like this is akin to Nero fiddling while… But what the hell, it beats looking at the tickertape.


Every day I check
 five different websites for their latest polling analyses. Each has some advantages. Here is a useful graphic or two from each of them:

538 (number of electoral votes)

The best analysis of the polls (by a young, baseball statistician). Weights polls as to their track record, timeliness, sample size. Obama surge is undeniable in last few weeks.
Picture 2

Shows probability of various electoral college outcomes. Suggests possibility of an Obama landslide.

Picture 1

Chances of a filibuster-proof Senate are slim, about 20%.

538 senate distr


Swing-state Ohio (Bush 51-49 over Kerry) has just gone blue.

Picture 1

Key state Florida (Bush 52-47 over Kerry) also swinging into blue.

Picture 1

Swing state Colorado (Bush 52-47 over Kerry) moving to Obama.

Picture 1

Gallup Daily

Gallup tracking poll surveys daily; provides a measure of sentiment changes.

Picture 1

Real Clear Politics

Another useful average of all polls. Obama gap widening.

Picture 2

Good summary data, national and state.

Picture 1


Complete electoral vote information by state.

Picture 2


Hank Paulson
 may be in charge, but does the following quote from his interview in Fortune, July 12, 2007, give you confidence that he’s on top of the situation?

"On risks: We haven't had a global financial shock since 1998. I believe that these large and dramatic increases in private pools of capital [hedge funds and private equity] and in the credit derivatives markets since then have helped manage and disperse risk and make the economy more efficient."


In case you missed it, the
 Saturday Night Live spoof of the vice presidential debate was hilarious. Be sure to watch it here.

And also in case you missed it, there is a
 new mystery candidate who has just entered the presidential race. After you’ve watched the video here, you can follow the directions at the end of the video and nominate another candidate of your choosing.


On March 4, 1933
, Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated president of the United States. Seven days later I was born. That week, FDR closed all the banks in the country. I’m not sure whether his action was in honor of, or in despair of, my birth. Seventy-five years later we’re losing banks again. This time, I think I’m blameless.


Question: What happens on January 20, 2009?
 Easy. The 44th President of the United States will be inaugurated. Next question: What happens on January 21, 2009? Also easy. The campaign for the 2012 presidency begins.


A physicist to the rescue:
 In my last post, I bemoaned the fact that with regard to the economic crisis, “nobody knows anything.” Certainly the results since then suggest the perspicacity of that accusation. Learned men and women have demonstrated repeatedly that their actions (and inactions) can successfully result in chaos in the worldwide marketplaces.

One fascinating explanation of the economic chaos was proffered by, of all people, a theoretical physicist in an October 1
 op-ed piece in the New York Times. Mark Buchanan argued that “economists still try to understand markets by using ideas from traditional economics, especially so-called equilibrium theory. This theory views markets as reflecting a balance of forces, and says that market values change only in response to new information… Markets are otherwise supposed to have no real internal dynamics of their own.

“Too bad for the theory, things don’t seem to work out that way… Really understanding what’s going on means going beyond equilibrium thinking and getting some insight into the underlying ecology of beliefs and expectations, perceptions and misperceptions, that drive market swings.

“Surprisingly, very few economists have actually tried to do this, although that’s now changing – if slowly – through the efforts of pioneers who are building computer models able to mimic market dynamics by stimulating their workings from the bottom-up…

“The model shows something that is not at all obvious. The instability doesn’t grow in the market gradually, but arrives suddenly. Beyond a certain threshold the virtual market abruptly loses its stability in a “phase transition” akin to the way ice abruptly melts into liquid water. Beyond this point, collective financial meltdown becomes effectively certain. This is the kind of possibility that equilibrium thinking cannot even entertain.”

It may not be easy reading, but it’s stimulating. It’s true that rocket scientists on Wall Street have contributed to a wee bit of havoc in recent years by creating some esoteric derivative instruments, but perhaps nuclear physicists working in economics models can make a more substantive contribution. In any event, the thinking is fresh, unconventional and holds promise.


Mozart effect: Some years ago, there was research that suggested that young children listening to Mozart could benefit mentally, that it would actually make them smarter. Later studies, however, dismiss these findings. In any event, I think you’ll be amused by the following extensions of the Mozart effect to the benefits of listening to music by other composers – whatever your age. (Thanks to Zarin Mehta of the New York Philharmonic for sending me the following.)

A recent report says that the Mozart effect is yet another charming urban legend. The bad news for hip urban professionals playing Mozart for their designer babies: It will not improve his IQ or help him get into that exclusive preschool. He'll just have to get admitted to Harvard some other way.

Of course, we're all better off listening to Mozart purely for the pleasure of it. However, one wonders whether, if playing Mozart sonatas for little Jason or Tiffany really could boost his or her intelligence, what would happen if other composers were played during the kiddies' developmental time?

Liszt Effect: Child speaks rapidly and extravagantly, but never really says anything important.

Bruckner Effect: Child speaks v-e-r-y slowly and repeats himself
frequently and at length. Gains reputation for profundity.

Wagner Effect: Child becomes an egocentric megalomaniac. May eventually marry his sister.

Mahler Effect: Child continually screams -- at great length and volume -- that he's dying.

Schoenberg Effect: Child never repeats a word until he's used all the other words in his vocabulary. Sometimes talks backwards. Eventually, people stop listening to him. Child blames them for their inability to understand him.

Ives Effect: The child develops a remarkable ability to carry on several separate conversations at once, in various dialects.

Glass Effect: The child tends to repeat himself over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.

Stravinsky Effect: The child is prone to savage, guttural and profane outbursts that often lead to fighting and pandemonium in the preschool.

Brahms Effect: The child is able to speak beautifully as long as his sentences contain a multiple of three words (3, 6, 9, 12, etc.). However, his sentences containing 4 or 8 words are strangely uninspired.

Cage Effect: Child says nothing for 4 minutes, 33 seconds - exactly. (Preferred by 10 out of 10 classroom teachers.)

Tuning an orchestra: Not too long ago, Donna and I hosted a Philharmonic patron event in our apartment, where several orchestra musicians entertained. I hired our regular piano tuner, who happens to work for the Metropolitan Opera, to tune the piano. As was the Met’s practice, he tuned it to A = 440Hz (Hertz, or vibrations per second). The Philharmonic, I learned shortly after, tunes to A = 442Hz. I can’t believe that anyone can tell the difference between 440 and 442, but it turns out that real musicians can. So I had to rehire the tuner to re-tune all 88 keys. Whatever the frequency, the concert sounded great.


Am I the only one who can’t stand the conservatism of professional football coaches? They seem so bound by conventional wisdom and tradition, doing what they do because they (and others) have always done it that way. They follow a philosophy of “lose the least” rather than “make the most.” As a result, he product suffers compared to what it could be. A potentially exciting sport has become turgid and formulaic.

Think of some of the really exciting plays you’ve seen (or heard about) in football, albeit rarely:

The halfback option, where the running back unexpectedly throws a pass (often for a touchdown).
 quick-kick on an early down, catching the defense without a returner in place (with the kick often going for a prodigious distance).
 two-point conversion to win a game (instead of that most boring of all plays, the extra-point kick, to tie).
 lateral by the pass receiver, who, after catching the ball, flips the ball to a teammate (who usually runs for a touchdown).
The reluctance to
 go for it on fourth down (choosing instead to punt, often resulting in a touchback, usually for a 20-or-so yard net distance).
And the excessive use of truly
 boring rushing plays (mostly up the middle).

Let’s look at the last two choices. If the chances of
 converting fourth downs were slim, it would be understandable that coaches almost always punt in this situation. But the data suggests the opposite. I went through the NFL statistics for all 32 teams during the 2007 regular season, and they shows the following:

Fourth down attempts: 533

Fourth down conversions: 261

Fourth down success ratio: 49%

I suspect that this success ratio is a lot higher than most people think. So it would seem to me that if a team is interested in
winning, rather than not losing, the number of fourth-down attempts would be a lot greater than the 2007 average of one per team per game.

And what about
 rushing versus passing? In 2007, the league-wide average gain per attempted pass was 6.8 yards. The gain per rush was 4.0 yards. Why, then, do they not pass more, given that the average passing yardage per attempt is 70% greater than per rush?

The conventional wisdom answer of course, almost a mantra, is
 that you need the rush to open up the pass. But is this true? Is there any data to support it? I don’t think so. And even if partly true, how much would you have to confuse the defense? Perhaps rushing 5% or 10% of the plays, instead of the 45%-50% now, would create enough uncertainty.


The Crescent City has certainly suffered a shattering blow from hurricane Katrina, not the least of which was the diminution of its population from the pre-storm 450,000 to the current 300,000. But well before this 2005 disaster, New Orleans was the victim of another set of disasters: incompetent, uncaring and crooked leadership at the local and state government levels. A tradition that began in the early 1930s by Huey Long. He started it, and many disciples and wannabes later perfected it.

Coupled with this lapse in political leadership was a failure from within the city’s citizenry. Ben C. Toledano described this source of urban decay eloquently in “New Orleans – An Autopsy,” an
 essay in the Sept. 2007 issue of Commentary magazine. (Ben C. and I were classmates from fifth through eighth grades.) He blames a large part of the demise on the practices and prejudices of the narrowly-based social and economic oligarchy that largely controlled the city.

My memory of growing up in New Orleans during the 1930s and 1940s was that we were first among equals of the four major southern cities; the others were Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta. Indeed we were the largest in population, we had the second-largest port in the country, we were in a state with immense natural resources, and we were certainly the most sophisticated and interesting city of the four.

Today, Houston and Dallas and Atlanta have left New Orleans in the dust. Yes, we still have the best food, the most interesting architecture, and the greatest music. But those three cities have left New Orleans in their wake – in population, commercial importance and standard of living. We’re more fun, but they offer their inhabitants much more economic opportunity and upward aspiration.

Tale of 4 cities

I have great hopes that the new governor, Bobby Jindal, will provide the necessary leadership to move the state and city forward. And in little over a year, New Orleans will elect a new mayor. The latter event can only be a positive development. In the meantime, I’m conjuring up ideas on what I can do to help rejuvenate the city commercially. The ideas are embryonic, but the enthusiasm is well developed. To be continued.


As I write this at 7:00pm, I just received word that my all-electric Tesla Roadster (featured on 60 Minutes last night) will arrive at our Kent, Connecticut, home tomorrow morning. So what started out as yet another end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it day has suddenly morphed into something pretty electrifying, as it were.