Archive for February, 2010

Real Bangalore

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga, 2008

A young Bangalore entrepreneur, Balram, learns that the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao plans a trip to Bangalore to learn about the envied Indian talent for entrepreneurship. Balram feels that he is in a unique position to educate the Premier from his own experience. He writes a series of email communications which constitute this novel.

Rural India

Balram was born into extreme poverty into a large family in the Darkness, the great interior of India along the Ganges River. His father was a rickshaw man who dies young of TB. Balram isn’t even given a name by his family who call him Munna which means boy. His teacher names him Balram which means white tiger. His last name, Halwai, is his families caste which means sweets maker. He is forced to leave school after a few years to work in a tea shop and contribute to his family. Balram is ambitious and saves enough to pay someone to teach him to drive. He applies for a job with the local landlord and gets lucky when the younger son, Ashok, has just returned from America and the family now has two cars and needs a second driver.

Rickshaw Man

Ashok and his Christian wife Pinky are sent to Delhi to live where he can bribe politicians to allow the family to avoid paying taxes. Balram is now making 3000 rupees a month, a fortune for his family back home. Balram is driving an air conditioned Honda City and is the envy of everyone in his family. One night Ashok and Pinky get drunk and Pinky insists on driving home. She hits and kills a young girl and isn’t even aware it has happened. Ashok’s family moves quickly, offering a large sum to Balram’s family on condition Balram signs a confession that he was driving at the time and struck the child. He will be arrested and sent to prison. But no one comes forward to report the girl missing and the police are able to dismiss the whole situation, sparing Balram. Balram now hates Ashok and his family. One day Ashok is carrying an Italian case with 700,000 rupees as a bribe. Balram kills Ashok and steals the money. The wanted poster looks like half the poor men in India. He thinks of running the Mumbai but has heard that things are happening in Bangalore so he travels there instead.

Bangalore Traffic

He finds there is a big demand for businesses hiring cars for their employees and executives. At first he can’t break into the business, but then remembers how Ashok bribes the politicians and he does the same to get a few car companies licenses pulled. Balram is then able to start his own successful company.

bangalore limo
Bangalore Limo

Along the way we learn about the fate of poor workers (servants) in India. The servants largely remain honest (they can be seen spending hours in line at the airline ticket offices to buy tickets costing many hundreds of dollars without stealing the money even though they themselves make only a few dollars a month). Balram explains that this is largely because the employers know the families back home and the family honor is at stake to say nothing of possible revenge by the employers against the family. Balram also introduces us to the world’s greatest democracy where politicians register all villagers once they turn 18 and vote for them the rest of their lives regardless of where the person now lives. Balram left his village as a boy but has never missed an election at home.


Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Cosmicomics, Italo Calvino, 1968


A short marvelously written novel follows the evolution of the universe from the big bang through the eyes of seemingly immortal Qfwfq who thinks in time frames of 200 million years. As a child he plays a form of marbles with Hydrogen atoms. We follow the formation of the galaxy and the changes in the world which will allow the formation of life. We see the first life crawling out of the sea to begin life on land. Throughout the eons, Qfwfq is always looking for a mate, usually without success, often with jealous rivals.

The Madness of Chef Gabriel

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

In The Kitchen, Monica Ali, 2009

The latest novel by the author of Brick Lane (and movie of the same name) has an English chef, Gabriel, as its main character. Gabriel grew up in a Northern mill town where his father introduced him to the latest technology and techniques in looms and weaving. The mills are now shuttered and one is being converted to a museum, his father has terminal cancer, and Gabriel, now a French trained chef, is about to launch his own London restaurants with his business and political partners. As a final preparation and as a test to satisfy his other investors, Gabriel is spending a year as executive chef at the Imperial Hotel, a Victorian era relic that has been refurbished everywhere but his kitchens. Gabriel has previously served in restaurants in Lyon and a two star restaurant in Paris. His new restaurant will be located near government offices and will serve classic French cuisine.

thistle royal horseguards
Thistle Royal Horeseguards Hotel London

Gabriel’s staff at the Imperial are all immigrant foreigners (Ali’s theme subject) of unknown legality. Some of his staff is highly educated (accountants, lawyers, one surgeon) just trying to survive in London. There is much detail about the day to day activities and human interactions in a large busy kitchen. One day Gabriel descends into the labyrinth under the kitchen (used for storage) and finds the body of Yuri, a Ukrainian worker naked and dead on the floor. The police conclude the death was accidental (Yuri slipped on the floor after a shower), that Yuri was secretly living in the labyrinth, and the case is closed.

Victorian Kitchen
Victorian Kitchen

Gabriel returns later to the labyrinth and this time encounters a Belorussian girl, Lena, who has been missing from work. She claims to be looking for money she has stashed in the wall. The money in the wall is gone. Gabriel suspects she has been living in the labyrinth as well and somehow invites her to stay at his place after he learn she is hiding from her pimp. This arrangement doesn’t go over too well with Gabriel’s long time girl friend Charlie, a 39 year old lounge singer, especially when Gabriel naively confesses he is sleeping with Lena. Gabriel started having repeating nightmares about events in the labyrinth and he loses sleep. Gabriel has become suspicious of the hotel’s maître d and now becomes obsessed with finding out what he is up to in an unused hotel room. Gabriel finally gets one of his workers to tell him what is going on which turns out to be human trafficking for the sex trade by convincing hotel chamber maids and kitchen workers that better employment can be found elsewhere. This means of “recruiting” sex workers is easier than smuggling girls across national borders since they are already in England. Gabriel descends, not so slowly, into madness and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic. After uncovering the maître d’s trafficking scheme, Gabriel now inadvertently stumbles into the maître d’s brother’s indentured servitude agriculture labor activity. The brother has purchased an old hotel shuttle bus to transport his labor to his vegetable farms and the mad Gabriel gets on the bus to see what other strange activity is surrounding the hotel.

We learn that Gabiel’s mom had descended into madness and Gabriel seems to be following. In the climax, Gabriel assaults his politician partner believing him to be the john of which Lena is terrified. Gabriel is dumped from the restaurant partnership and he loses his investment. Gabriel’s father dies, Gabriel is unemployed and his life savings are gone, to the restaurant and to Lena. Gabriel is living in his father’s house and ready to start rebuilding his life. Charlie may even give him another chance.

The madness comes off better in this novel than the themes of human trafficking and slavery that Ali is interested in exposing. Worth reading anyway.

Piggy Banks

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

I.O.U. John Lanchester, 2009

Here is a concise attempt to explain in layman’s terms what went wrong in the financial crisis. It is particularly interesting since the author lives in London and can give us a view from the global epicenter complete with British wit. Unfortunately dry British humor sometimes doesn’t translate so well for an American reader.

Rogues Neeson <> <> <> Citron <> <> <> Iguchi <> <> <> Hamanaka <> <> <> Kerviel

He brings us up to date on the rogues gallery that began with Nick Neeson the Rogue Trader whose more than $1 billion trading losses single handedly brought down century old Barings Bank. The ever expanding gallery now includes Robert Citron of Orange County and Toshihide Iguchi of Daiwa Bank each losing more than $1 billion. Move up to Yasuo Hamanaka of Sumitomo who clocked in at $2.6 billion and on to the current reigning champion Jerome Kerviel of Societe Generale at $7.2 billion.

Joseph Cassano

Consciously missing from this rogues list is AIG’s London based Joseph Cassano who earned $280 million writing CDS insurance policies for much of the CDO industry.To date bailouts to AIG add up to $173 billion, most of which has gone to Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and other big subprime players in the form of insurance payouts.

He briefly explains how banks work, taking deposits and leveraging them into loans far exceeding the value of the deposits. With the invention of securitization and the use of off shore corporations to hide leveraged positions and avoid taxes, leverage went on steroids sometimes reaching 40 or 50 to 1 times deposits or equity.

Genius David X Li

He spends some time on the geniuses (mathematics and statistics) who came up with models that were presumed to eliminate all risk from investment and brought us LTCM that collapsed in 1998. We are now familiar with the VAR risk index based on the Gaussian bell curve much criticized by Nassim Talib (The Black Swan). Here we meet for the first time Chinese immigrant David X. Li (whereabouts unknown) with a PhD in Statistics from the University of Waterloo who suggested applying the Gaussian copula function to the CDO (subprime derivatives) market. Basically, and without any evidence that CDOs fit the function, Li proposed that the price of the insurance policies, the CDS, be used as the metric to determine the level of risk for any CDO. “On Default Correlation: A Copula Function Approach” In other words he proposed a totally circular measurement in which the price of insurance (CDS supposedly reflecting the actual underlying risk of the securitization) is used to determine the risk of the security! Wow! Yet this unbelievably stupid idea caught fire and suddenly, sub prime securitized mortgages were rated AAA, the same as US Treasuries. If this stuff were fiction no one would believe it for a second. This one dumb idea, allowing subprime junk to receive AAA ratings, more than anything else blew up the entire global financial system. The CDO market which was worth $275 billion in 2000 when Li published his paper exploded to $4.7 trillion by 2006.

To accommodate this massive new market, the industry needed vast numbers of new customers. Here is the the birth of the subprime mortgage market. Governments in the US and Britain played their part by staying away from any regulation under the guise of promoting the “ownership society”. Lanchester summarizes:

…by 2006, 60 percent of subprime applicants were lying about their income by more than 50 percent… By that point more than half of all applications for mortgages were either “piggyback” loans, meaning that they were double loans taken out to buy the same property, or “liar loans” in which the applicants were invited to state their own income, or “no doc” loans in which the buyer produced no paperwork. Gee, what could possibly go wrong?…And as for the idea that those peoples’ mortgage payments were being miraculously transmuted into AAA-grade investments…

Where were the regulators? Here is his summary of American government policy:

* insistance on free movement of capital across borders
* the repeal of depression era regulations seperating commercial from investment banking
* a congressional ban on the regulation of credit default swaps
* major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks
* a light (dare I say invisible?) hand at the Securities and Exchange Commission in its regulatory enforcement
* an international agreement to allow banks to measure their own riskiness
* and an intentional failure to update regulations so as to keep up with the tremendous pace of financial innovation

So what brought us to this disaster?

The credit crunch was based on a climate (the post Cold war victory party of free market capitalism), a problem (the subprime mortgages), a mistake (the mathematical models of risk), and a failure (that of the regulators).

How do we fix this mess? Lanchester doesn’t know.

Odd Tale

Thursday, February 4th, 2010

The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver, 2009

The latest from Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, Pigs in Heaven) is a strange one and has been met with mixed reviews. This reader liked it.

It is set in the time period from 1929 to 1951 and Kingsolver’s primary objective seems to have been to focus on significant events of the period; the great depression, war, the cold war and communist witch hunt; from a purely personal point of view namely through the life of the protagonist; a young man, Harrison William Shepherd, whose father is a Washington DC government bean counter and whose mother is the daughter of a Mexican bureaucrat (without an ounce of Indian blood) who married Shepherd as a young teenager against her parent’s will. The novel form is a little hard to make out but seems to be a biography of Shepherd based on diaries and letters and pulled together by mysterious archivist VB.

Tajin Pyramid near Veracruz

The story begins with the divorce of his parents when Shepherd is 12 and his mother returns to Mexico with her new lover, Enrique, a Mexican diplomat and owner of a Hacienda on Isla Pixol a small island north of Veracruz. The island has no school but Enrique loans the boy a few books at a time, mostly European classics, from his personal and locked library. Shepherd reads whatever Enrique chooses. The books include a few on Mexican history and young Shepherd develops a passion for Mexico’s great past civilizations. Shepherd’s mother buys the boy a leather bound diary and Shepherd begins his lifelong habit of keeping a diary.

Life on the island isn’t bad since a young cook takes him under his wing, teaching him to cook, and giving him his dead brother’s hand made diving mask. Shepherd becomes a proficient swimmer and diver and loves to explore an isolated cove where he discovers an underwater cave,a Lacuna. At low tide, during a full moon, the mouth of the cave is exposed and it is possible for Shepherd to enter and explore the cave. He can see light ahead and sets a goal of becoming strong enough to swim to where the light is. In his explorations he finds stone carvings and human bones and imagines that the Indians stored secret treasures in the cave when the Spanish arrived.

Shepherd’s mother tires of the stingy Enrique and runs away to Mexico City with a wealthy, married, businessman who promises her a place of her own and school for her son. Shepherd discovers the great Aztec ruins of Mexico City. Shepherd cannot pass the entrance exams for the better schools and is finally sent to a Catholic run school for misfits and delinquents.

bonus army BonusArmyAttackForce
Bonus Army Camp and Col. Pattan’s attack force

Bonus Army Camp burns with Capital in background

His mother convinces his father to put Shepherd in a good American school and packs him off alone by train back to DC. His father, the bean counter, arranges a place in a boarding school where he abandons him. Shepherd and one other student, an orphan and street smart bully are the only two students who live at the school year round. The two boys spend time on the DC Mall where one of the largest Hoovervilles has grown with tents everywhere and people are living in abandoned warehouses. On one occasion WWI veterans stage a protest demonstration because the government has failed to pay their promised pensions and Hoover sends the army (Gen. MacArthur and Col. Patton) to break up the protest. They use horses, tanks, and tear gas, trampling many and accidentally setting fire to some warehouses.

frida-diego Frida-Kahlo-Diego-Rivera
Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

Diego Rivera Mexico City Mural

The story suddenly jumps a couple of years ahead and VB explains that a diary for those years is missing. We move to 1935 and find ourselves again in Mexico city. Shepherd is 18 and looking for work in a world without jobs. One day he sees an Aztec queen in the market followed by her slave carrying a bamboo bird cage on her head. The queen is buying birds from the market. Shepherd also goes to the city hall where he sees a mural in progress depicting the history of Mexico. On another day Shepherd again sees the Aztec queen in the market alone and offers to help carry her purchases home. The home is a bright blue house with a fabulous garden; Shepherd has met the painters Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera. He goes to work in their kitchen. Shortly after, Diego prepares to receive special guests by turning the blue house into a fortress. A Russian peasant couple show up; it is Lev Davidovich Trotsky and his wife. Shepherd knows how to type and becomes a second secretary to Trotsky. This appears a little over the top but somehow works.

Lev Davidovich Trosky and Natalya

Shepherd has also been secretly writing his own novel, a story of Cortez and Moctezuma, known only to Frida. Shepherd’s mother dies suddenly in a car accident while racing with her reporter boy friend to catch sight of Howard Hughes landing at a nearby airfield.

Trotsky is brutally murdered while Shepherd is in the house and the police arrive to take away all of Shepherd’s personal things including his novel and diaries. Frida goes to the police and manages to retrieve his clothes and other items and convinces Shepherd it is time for him to return to Gringolandia (America). She needs to ship her paintings to Peggy Guggenheim’s NY Gallery and sends Shepherd as her shipping agent. She gives him an extra crate which contains a small painting, a gift for Shepherd. After delivering the paintings, Shepherd returns to DC to discover his father has died leaving him a small amount of money and a nearly new white Chevy coupe. Orphan Shepherd drives out the new Blue ridge mountain federal highway until it ends in Asheville NC. He takes a room in a boarding house and gets a job. It is now 1940.

1939 Chevy Coupe

When the war starts Shepherd, who has been blue carded, (he has the wrong sexual preferences) is recruited by the Civilian service to help ship national treasures from DC to Asheville for safe keeping. In 1943 he finally opens Frida’s gift crate. The sketch it contains is not packed in the usual straw but in crumpled up paper and he discovers that Frida has managed to retrieve all his novel and diaries from the police and has hidden them as packing material in the crate. Shepherd immediately buys a typewriter and starts turning the pages into a manuscript. It is published, critically acclaimed, and suddenly Shepherd is famous and has money. He buys a small craftsmen s cottage and sets to work on his second novel. He is overwhelmed with mail and decides to hire a stenographer.

Appalachian Family

Violet Brown (VB) shows up for the interview and he realizes they lived for years in the same boarding house. VB is a widow, 17 years older than Shepherd. Her people have lived in the mountains a day’s drive from Asheville for hundreds of years and she is the only member of her family ever to have escaped the mountains (to Asheville). She reads widely and follows the National Geographic magazine, dreaming of trips she never expects to make. She speaks an idiom that would have been familiar to Shakespeare. She is unshakable and practical and was able to handle the army bureaucracy effortlessly as a secretary during the war. Shepherd hires her and she not only organizes his correspondence and novel drafts, but helps him deal with his new found fame getting him out of the house to mix with the town. The Asheville of this novel is the Ashville of Thomas Wolfe whose tell-all first novel exposed to town to scandal that forced Wolfe to move to NYC. (not to be confused with white suited Tom Wolfe) There is no mention here of Black Mountain College, famous after the war for the works of John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, or Merce Cunningham, who formed the cultural avant garde of the era.

The war ends and his second novel is published to even greater acclaim. He needs to hire a lawyer to negotiate the movie rights. He takes VB to DC to view a contemporary art exhibit the State Department wants to use to show the Europeans that American culture is more than Norman Rockwell. It is VBs first trip out of the county. Congress hates the show and kills the idea of touring the exhibit.

Shepherd decides to set his next novel in the Yucatan dealing with the decline of Mayan culture. He and VB spend two months in Mexico researching his subject. They return to Asheville to the inevitable rumors that they are romantically involved.

The last third of Lacuna deals with the post war Red scare and the communist witch hunts. Guess who is one of the victims. None other than gay, half Mexican friend of famous communists Frida and Diego, and former personal secretary to Bolshevik founder Trotsky himself.

Shepherd consults his lawyer and has VB burn all his diaries and letters, particularly those from/to Frida and Diego. Shepherd is hauled before Congress and it is all but certain he will be arrested. Before that happens he and VB make a final trip to Mexico (using assumed names), back to Isla Pixol. On the full moon at low tide with VB and other island children as witnesses Shepherd, who has been training in an Asheville pool, dives into his boyhood cove and vanishes. He is 34 years old. His body is never recovered. You can guess how VB managed to create this book from all the “burned” material.