Fun Facts About Americans’ Love of Fresh-Cut Christmas Trees, Courtesy of The Economist (14 December 2013)

Is self barreling along, or what?  She only has about six week’s worth of back issues of The Economist left to read.

Wouldn’t it have been nice to read a post about Christmas trees BEFORE Christmas?  Yup.

Now she’s on the Dec. 14, 2013 issue of The Economist.

p. 71 has an article on Americans’ apparently insatiable love for fresh-cut Christmas trees.

  • Every December, a man named Francoise brings 500 fresh-cut trees from Quebec to New York’s Upper West Side.
  • The trees sell for anything from $20 to $300.
  • The National Christmas Tree Association (NCTA)  — Ever heard of it before?  Neither had self! — reports that “Americans spent more than $1 billion on 25m trees in 2012.”  The average price of a tree?  $40.
  • People on the East Coast prefer Fraser firs because of their “typical evergreen fragrance.”  Californians prefer Oregon’s Grand Fir, “which has an orange-like scent.”
  • Home Depot expected “to sell 2.8 million” fresh-cut trees in 2013.
  • Easton is “the Christmas-tree capital of Connecticut.  “Every second car leaving the area has a tree or two strapped to its roof.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

The Economist: Best Books of the Year 2013

Self is getting so specific about the books she is interested in reading.  Here she is with The Economist of 7 December 2013, the issue that contains its annual Best Books of the Year lists, and she’s completely ignored Politics and Current Affairs, Biography and Memoir, and History, which usually are the first sections she looks at.

Self, enough with the second guessing!  Here, without further ado, are the books self is adding to her (already humongous) reading list.

In Economics and Business

In Science and Technology

  • Empire Antarctica:  Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, by Gavin Francis (Counterpoint)

In Culture, Society and Travel

  • Bach:  Music in the Castle of Heaven, by John Eliot Gardiner (Knopf)
  • The Leonard Bernstein Letters, edited by Nigel Simeone (Yale University Press)

In Fiction

  • The Luminaries:  A Novel, by Eleanore Catton (Little, Brown)
  • Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books)
  • Norwegian by Night, by Derek Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Self is quite pleased with the progress she’s made through BLGF:  She’s presently on p. 468 (Belgrade I).  Still to come:  Belgrade II, Belgrade III, Belgrade IV, Belgrade V, Belgrade VI, Belgrade VII, Belgrade VIII, and Belgrade IX.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Dien Bien Phu, May 1954

Self is tackling her back issues of The Economist with great gusto.  Today, she got through three.

The 12 October 2013 issue has an obituary of General Nguyen Giap, the man who won the battle of Dien Bien Phu, a great watershed which marked the end of French colonial rule in Vietnam.  The general died Oct. 4.  He was 102.

There was a war movie made of this battle, starring Mel Gibson (Self finally remembered the name of the movie:  “We Are Soldiers.”)  In that movie, self remembers the warren of tunnels the Vietnamese had built, and a small man who seemed to be a general (though his uniform was just as plain as that of an ordinary soldier) telling his men:  “We will grab the enemy by the belt buckle, and pull him close.”  (This line was delivered in Vietnamese, with subtitles.  Which added greatly to the power of the scene. Self remembers being so stunned by that line that she never forgot it.  Even though, at the time she saw the movie, she knew very little about the battle itself.)

The Economist describes the battle strategy thus:

This victory had been a long time in the making.  The French had fortified the valley, in northwest Tonkin on the border with Laos, so he had taken his troops into the mountains that encircled it.  The French thought the hills impassable:  craggy, forested, foggy, riddled with caves.  General Giap recalled the words of his hero Bonaparte, whose battle plans he was sketching out with chalk when he was still at the Lycée in Hue:  “If a goat can get through, so can a man; if a man can get through, so can a battalion.”  Slowly, stealthily, in single file, 55,000 men took up positions there, supplied by 260,000 coolies with baskets, 20,000 bicycles and 11,800 bamboo rafts.  Artillery was carried up in sections.  From this eyrie, trenches and tunnels were dug down until they almost touched the French.  The enemy never stood a chance.

General Giap’s heroes were Bonaparte (audace, surprise), Lawrence of Arabia, and Mao Zedong, especially Mao’s “three-stage doctrine of warfare (guerrilla tactics, stalemate, offensive warfare).”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Catch-Up Reading: The Economist, 14 September 2013

Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts is an account of how, at 18, he walked from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople.  This was in the 1930s.  Self finally got to it just a few years ago.

Fermor documented a time and place that, several years later, would be destroyed forever.  A Time of Gifts is a wonderful book.  Self will never, ever forget it.

Now, she is trying to catch up on her Economist reading, and she ends up lingering in the Books section, where there is a review of a posthumously published volume (Fermor died two years ago, at age 96).

Reading the review, self learns that Fermor wrote a second book, Between the Woods and the Water, which “covered his 1934 walk through Hungary and Transylvania, where he was as much at home in hayricks as in the hovels of gypsies.”  Oh, joy!  Self immediately added this book to her reading list.

But the third book, the posthumously published The Broken Road:  From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, is also fascinating.  It is “the full contemporary account of his time at Mount Athos,” and while it lacks some of the “magic” of the earlier books, it “has an elegiac tone.  None of the people described survives and the countries visited have undergone wars and revolutions, leaving them virtually unrecognisable.”

In other words, the various “tribes” of the Balkans and central Europe were every bit as endangered as the Native American tribes who ruled from sea to sea, or the native tribes of New Guinea and other parts less traveled.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Books of The Economist, 16 March 2013 and The New York Review of Books, 27 September 2012

Self has Don Quijote so much on the brain (it’s overdue at the Library: she better hurry up) that she even sees a theme in the latest book list:  it seems to be a list of Quijotic Endeavours.  After you read the capsule descriptions, see if you don’t agree, dear blog readers:

  • A first novel, Ghana Must Go, by Talye Selasi (Penguin Press):  A brilliant medical student from Ghana becomes the scapegoat in the death of a 77-year-old “Boston socialite, wife, mother, grandmother and alcoholic.”
  • The “agony” of Iraq, described by Toby Dodge in Iraq:  From War to a New Authoritarianism:  “The collapse of the Iraqi state” allowed ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ — “political manipulators of sectarian fears —  to flourish.”
  • An artist talks about his process in The Lost Carving:  A Journey to the Heart of Making, by David Esterly (Viking):  Esterly’s medium is wood.  His inspiration was a 17th century woodcarver who went by the name Grinling Gibbons.  When “a fire at Hampton Court Palace damaged a series of Gibbon carvings . . .  Mr. Esterly was chosen to recreate” one of them, a “seven-foot-long cascade of fruit and flowers . . .  This book is the story of the year it took him to do it.”

And, from The New York Review of Books of 27 September 2012, two very interesting reviews:  the first by Jerome Groopman, reviewing God’s Hotel:  A Doctor, A Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine by Victoria Sweet (Riverhead) and the second by Ezra Klein, reviewing The Obamas, by Jodi Kantor.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Dateline: Redwood City, California (In the Business Section of the 23 February 2013 Economist)!

The article is called “The Price of Reputation.”  It’s about a Redwood City-based company called Reputation.com which “has 1.6m customers.  For $99 a year or more they get a basic ‘reputation starter’ package, which monitors when they are mentioned online and alerts them if anything sensitive comes up, such as ‘your real age, name, address, mugshots, legal disputes or marital problems.’  For $5,000 a year, the firm will ‘combat misleading or inaccurate links from your top search results’ (most people do not look at results much below the top page or two).”

Reputation’s founder, Michael Fertik, is 34 years old (Crikey!).  His goal is “to launch a data vault —  like a bank vault containing all the data that constitute a person’s reputation.”  According to Fertik, the current internet “business model” is one where “giant firms give customers something free, collect data on them without their knowledge and sell it to third parties to do with whatever they like.”  A firm like Reputation.com would let “the consumer . . .  decide if they want to sell information about themselves to companies that want to get to know them.”

The article ends with the characteristic British tongue-in-cheek utterance:  Reputation.com “has the advantage of that most valuable thing, which it must protect at all costs:  a good reputation.”

OK, so how does this square with Law # 41 of Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power?

Establish your own name and identity by changing course.  Slay the overbearing father, disparage his legacy, and gain power by shining in your own way.

In self’s humble opinion, you can only slay the overbearing father once.  Because after that, there will be no more overbearing fathers (to slay).  Naturally.  And, what then?  Your reputation is trash, you’ve bitten the dust, you’ve revealed your moral turpitude, you’ve — Self, cut it out!  Right this minute!  Whence all this negativity?  You ought to enroll in a course about letting the sunshine into your life!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

The Economist Obit: André Cassagnes, Died January 16, Aged 86

Only The Economist could devote a whole page to the life of a man whose “day-job, until 1987 when he retired, was as an electrician for an interior-decoration firm based near Paris.”

He was “the son of a baker from Vitry-sur-Seine.  Had he not been allergic to flour, he might have stayed in the shop.”

In true Economist fashion, what earns this man a place in the pantheon of luminaries graced with Economist obituaries is not revealed until almost halfway through the piece.  A third of the way through, we learn that Cassagnes, “at the ripe age of 50,” developed a passion for kites.

Just when self thinks this is going to be an illuminating article about a designer of kites, The Economist springs the Ultimate Surprise:  Cassagnes was the inventor of the Etch-a-Sketch, a toy that has “sold more than 100m units worldwide in 50 years and earned a place in America’s National Toy Hall of Fame, alongside Barbie and Potato Head.”

It was licensed in 1960, so neither our grandparents nor our parents likely had the opportunity to play with this fascinating invention (And nowadays, could the Etch-a-Sketch hold a candle to video games?  Self thinks not!).

Self did have one, though.  And she is so old-fashioned that she actually purchased one for sole fruit of her loins.  But at the ripe old age of five, The Man went over all of self’s strenuous objections and bought son a couple of video games.  That was it.  That was the End:  all the Legos and train sets and kites and matchbox cars in the world could never compete with the magic of the video game!  Self might as well have hung up her boxing gloves.  Instead, she trudged on for seven or eight more years, stubbornly insisting that son put aside those video games and read a book or go to the park, which was only an inviting two blocks from our humble abode.  But no!  Video games ruled!  Self can tick off the names:  World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy Vols. 1 – 7, Grand Theft Auto.  Thank goodness he never went in for the horrific ones like Silent Hill.  All those crawling ghosts and incubus would have presented serious challenges to her equanimity, not to mention her sleep!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Science Article, The Economist (Dec. 22, 2012): The Fist, or: Why the Human Hand is Superior

Well, then, dear blog readers.  Self has had a very, very interesting evening.  She read a gardening book, and then she read The Economist.

Flipping through the latter, self encountered an article on p. 123 called “Making a Fist of It.”  Here are the points the article made:

  • The hand is the only appendage on the human body “that has different names, depending on what it is being used for.  Employ it to hold something, and it is called a hand.  Employ it to hit someone, and it is called a fist.”
  • “Most primate hands . . .  are suited for climbing.”  Not human hands.  With their “short palms, short fingers and long thumbs,” human hands are useful because they allow two types of grips:  a) the “precision grip, in which an object is held between the pads of the finger tips” and b) the “power grip, in which all the fingers and the thumb are wrapped around what is being grasped.”  Both these grips make the human hand superbly equipped for “tool-crafting,” widely believed to be “the driving force behind the modern hand’s proportions.”

Enter two scientists from the University of Utah, Messrs. Michael Morgan and David Carrier.  They postulate a theory “that the exact geometry of the hand is probably the result of its destructive rather than its constructive power.”

The two scientists set out to determine “what makes the fist such an effective weapon.”

  • “A fist presents the knuckles first.  That means the force of a blow is transmitted through a much smaller area than would be the case for its alternative, an open-handed slap.”  In addition, “a closed fist delivers 15% more force than an open-handed strike . . . “
  • “All this suggests that fists are indeed proper evolutionary adaptations, with their own history of natural selection, rather than being just the coincidental by-products of humanity’s handiness with a tool.”

In conclusion, humans “prosper” because the hand not only enables them to make things, but because it can be made into a very effective weapon, simply by making a few adjustments to the tool grip.  Relying on the fist makes it possible to “take what the makers have made,” which is wonderfully opportunistic and practical —  precisely the kind of thing that enforces compliance.  Oh, those early human fist-fighters!  No doubt this is part of the reason why humans were eventually able to assert dominance over the entire animal world.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Currently Reading: Second Sunday of December (2012)

It is a beautiful, sunny day.  Jennie and son have decided to sleep in.  Just as well, for they have a long drive ahead of them:  they are heading back to Claremont today, boo.

But, first there will be brunch!

Self keeps herself occupied by reading.  Her current book is Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box.

Self’s first Ruth Rendell mystery was Thirteen Steps Down, and it was absolutely fascinating, a novel told from the point of view of a murderer.  The main character (the murderer) did not have as spectacular a psyche as, say, Hannibal Lecter or others of his ilk, but was rather a run-of-the-mill sad sack who had no idea that he was capable of murder —  that is, until he finally went and did it (more out of pique than, even, of anger).  Self would never have thought she would be quite so engaged.  Anyhoo, after that book, self added Rendell to her list of favorite crime writers, a list that includes Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Morag Joss, and Arnaldur Indridason (She also recently added a new name to the list:  Colin Harrison, whose thriller The Finder self read in Paris, during the few days she spent in a friend’s apartment, in July)

The Monster in the Box is again about a twisted soul, but this time we are in the point of view of a decent man, a recurring character in Rendell’s books, an Inspector Wexford.  Self has not yet been able to pinpoint his age, as —  despite her best efforts —  she is still only on p. 76 (and she began the book about a week ago).

But that’s OK!  Because self finished the novel she is reviewing, and she worked hard on her novel-in-progress, and son came two days ago with Jennie, and various other exciting things happened, which will keep on happening, self is sure, until the end of the holidays.

Casting a glance at the blurbs on the back of the book, self finds this by P. D. James:  “She has transcended her genre by her remarkable imaginative power to explore and illuminate the dark corners of the human psyche.”

Hear, hear!

And here’s something from Marilyn Stasio, the crime columnist for the New York Times Book Review:

“Ruth Rendell is my dream writer.  Her prose style, so intricate in design and supple in execution, has the disquieting intimacy of an alien touch in the dark.”

Again, hear, hear.  Turning, now, to one of self’s recent posts, she finds that a lot of people are viewing the post about  Naguib Mahfouz, the one in which she quoted from an issue of The Economist (September 2, 2006).  It is quite clear, after re-reading that obituary, that Mahfouz was a writer of place.  Quoting from The Economist:

. . . he was born, in 1911, in Gamaliya, a 1,000-year-old quarter whose densely packed and labyrinthine lanes were overhung by balconies that blotted out the daylight.  By the time he was six his father, a local merchant, had done well enough for himself to join the flight of Cairo’s burgeoning middle class to the airier, more modern parts of town.  But Mr. Mahfouz never lost his love of the Old City.  Many of his most pungent novels were set there and drew their titles from it:  Zuqaq al Midaq (Midaq Alley), Al Sukariya (Sugar Street).

Truly, your earliest memories never fail you.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

And Now, Reading About K2

A few days ago, self began reading Three Cups of Tea:  One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism and Build Nations . . .  One School at a Time.  She’d read the review in The Economist, years ago.

She was confused as The Economist had described the book as a memoir by a mountain climber named Greg Mortenson, but the book turns out to be told in third person, by a journalist named David Oliver Relin.

Thankfully, Relin turns out to be a very good writer.

In the book’s first 20 pages, self learns that Greg Mortenson nearly died during an attempt to reach K2.  He and another man had become separated from the rest of their group.  In a case of rare good luck, Mortenson encountered two men who had worked as porters for a Mexican mountain climbing team.  The porters had completed their work and were now on their way home, unladen.  They agreed to carry Mortenson’s stuff back to base camp, for a fee of $4 a day.  One of these porters, Mouzafer, would later become instrumental in helping to save Mortenson’s life.

Mouzafer, the reader learns, “was a Balti, the mountain people who populated the least hospitable high-altitude valleys in northern Pakistan.  The Balti had originally migrated south from Tibet, via Ladakh, more than six hundred years ago, and their Buddhism had been scoured away as they traveled over the rocky passes and replaced by a religion more attuned to the severity of their new landscape —  Shiite Islam.  But they retained their language, an antique form of Tibetan.  With their diminutive size, toughness, and supreme ability to thrive at altitudes where few humans choose even to visit, they have physically reminded many mountaineers climbing in Baltistan of their distant cousins to the east, the Sherpa of Nepal.  But other qualities of the Balti, a taciturn suspicion of outsiders, along with their unyielding faith, have prevented Westerners from celebrating them in the same fashion as they fetishize the Buddhist Sherpa.”

*     *     *     *

Another climber, Fosco Maraini, who was part of a “1958 Italian expedition that managed the first ascent of Gasherbrum IV, a rugged neighbor of K2″ wrote this about the Balti:

“They connive, and complain and frustrate one to the utmost.  And beyond their often-foul odor, they have an unmistakable air of the brigand.  But if you are able to overlook their roughness, you’ll learn they serve you faithfully, and they are high-spirited.  Physically they are strong . . .  You can see thin little men with legs like storks’, shouldering forty kilos day after day, along tracks that would make the stranger think twice before he ventured on them carrying nothing at all.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

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