5 months Ago

Encodo’s configuration library for Quino: part II

Published by marco on in Programming

In this article, we’ll continue the discussion about configuration started in part I. We wrapped up that part with the following principles to keep in mind while designing the new system.

  • Consistency
  • Opt-in configuration
  • Inversion of Control
  • Configuration vs. Execution
  • Common Usage

Borrowing from ASP.NET vNext

Quino’s configuration inconsistencies and issues have been well-known for several versions—and years—but the opportunity to rewrite it comes only now with a major-version break.

Luckily for us, ASP.NET has been going through a similar struggle and evolution. We were able to model some of our terminology on the patterns from their next version. For example, ASP.NET has moved to a pattern where an application-builder object is passed to user code for configuration. The pattern there is to include middleware (what we call “configuration”) by calling extension methods starting with “Use”.

Quino has had a similar pattern for a while, but the method names varied: “Integrate”, “Add”, “Include”; these methods have now all been standardized to “Use” to match the prevailing .NET winds.

Begone configuration and feedback

Additionally, Quino used to make a distinction between an application instance and its “configuration”—the template on which an application is based. No more. Too complicated. This design decision, coupled with the promotion of a platform-specific “Feedback” object to first-level citizen, led to an explosion of generic type parameters.[1]

The distinction between configuration (template) and application (instance) has been removed. Instead, there is just an application object to configure.

The feedback object is now to be found in the service locator. An application registers a platform-specific feedback to use as it would any other customization.

[1] The CustomWinformFeedback in the Quino 1.x code at the end of this article provides a glaring example.

Hello service locator

ASP.NET vNext has made the service locator a first-class citizen. In ASP.NET, applications receive an IApplicationBuilder in one magic “Configure” method and receive an IServiceCollection in another magic “ConfigureServices” method.

In Quino 2.x, the application is in charge of creating the service container, though Quino provides a method to create and configure a standard one (SimpleInjector). That service locator is passed to the IApplication object and subsequently accessible there.

Services can of course be registered directly or by calling pre-packaged Middleware methods. Unlike ASP.NET vNext, Quino 2.x makes no distinction between configuring middleware and including the services required by that middleware.

Begone configuration hierarchy

Quino’s configuration library has its roots in a time before we were using an IOC container. The configuration was defined as a hierarchy of configuration classes that modeled the following layers.

  • A base implementation that makes only the most primitive assumptions about an application. For example, that it has a RunMode (“debug” or “release”) or an exit code or that it has a logging mechanism (e.g. IRecorder).
  • The “Core” layer comprises application components that are very common, but do not depend on Quino’s metadata.
  • And, finally, the “Meta” layer includes configuration for application components that extend the core with metadata-dependent versions as well as specific components required by Quino applications.

While these layers are still somewhat evident, the move to middleware packages has blurred the distinction between them. Instead of choosing a concrete configuration base class, an application now calls a handful of “Use” methods to indicate what kind of application to build.

There are, of course, still helpful top-level methods—e.g. UseCore() and UseMeta() methods—that pull in all of the middleware for the standard application types. But, crucially, the application is free to tweak this configuration with more granular calls to register custom configuration in the service locator.

This is a flexible and transparent improvement over passing esoteric parameters to monolithic configuration methods, as in the previous version.

An example: Configure a software updater

Just as a simple example, whereas a Quino 1.x standalone application would set ICoreConfiguration.UseSoftwareUpdater to true, a Quino 2.x application calls UseSoftwareUpdater(). Where a Quino 1.x Winform application would inherit from the WinformFeedback in order to return a customized ISoftwareUpdateFeedback, a Quino 2.x application calls UseSoftwareUpdateFeedback().

The software-update feedback class is defined below and is used by both versions.

public class CustomSoftwareUpdateFeedback
  : WinformSoftwareUpdateFeedback<IMetaApplication>
  protected override ResponseType DoConfirmUpdate(TApplication application, …)

That’s where the similarities end, though. The code samples below show the stark difference between the old and new configuration systems.

Quino 1.x

As explained above, Quino 1.x did not allow registration of a sub-feedback like the software-updater. Instead, the application had to inherit from the main feedback and override a method to create the desired sub-feedback.

class CustomWinformFeedback : WinformFeedback
  public virtual ISoftwareUpdateFeedback<TApplication>
  GetSoftwareUpdateFeedback<TApplication, TConfiguration, TFeedback>()
    where TApplication : ICoreApplication<TConfiguration, TFeedback>
    where TConfiguration : ICoreConfiguration
    where TFeedback : ICoreFeedback
    return new CustomSoftwareUpdateFeedback(this);

var configuration = new CustomConfiguration()
  UseSoftwareUpdater = true

  app => new CustomMainForm(app), 
  new CustomWinformFeedback()

The method-override in the feedback was hideous and scared off a good many developers. not only that, the pattern was to use a magical, platform-specific WinformDxMetaConfigurationTools.Run method to create an application, run it and dispose it.

Quino 2.x

Software-update feedback-registration in Quino 2.x adheres to the principles outlined at the top of the article: it is consistent and uses common patterns (functionality is included and customized with methods named “Use”), configuration is opt-in, and the IOC container is used throughout (albeit implicitly with these higher-level configuration methods).

using (var application = new CustomApplication())
  application.UseSoftwareUpdaterFeedback(new CustomSoftwareUpdateFeedback());
  application.Run(app => new CustomMainForm(app));

Additionally, the program has complete control over creation, running and disposal of the application. No more magic and implicit after-the-fact configuration.

What comes after configuration?

In the next and (hopefully) final article, we’ll take a look at configuring execution—the actions to execute during startup and shutdown. Registering objects in a service locator is all well and good, but calls into the service locator have to be made in order for anything to actually happen.

Keeping this system flexible and addressing standard application requirements is a challenging but not insurmountable problem. Stay tuned.

Books read in 2014

Published by marco on in Art, Film & Literature

The Name of the Rose (1983/en)

by Umberto Eco

This book is about a series of murders in an abbey in 12th-century Italy. A battle rages between opposed forces within the church, with some siding with the Pope and others not. The schism approaches, inquisitional troops roam the land. A very well-educated and modern monk, William of Baskerville, arrives at the abbey with his novice Melk in tow, to whom he is imparting not only wisdom but the kind of inquisitive mind that will be capable of acquiring such on its own at some point.

The story is told from Melk’s point of view as an autobiography ostensibly written many decades later. They arrive in time for the first in a series of murders and investigate it, as far as they are allowed. Intrigues abound, books—the lifeblood of the abbey—are pored over, characters are introduced. There is the brutish but sly Salvatore, the crooked Remigio and many others who contribute information as well as layers of intrigue.

The abbey’s magnificent and labyrinthine library is the centerpiece, with its star-shaped architecture, many rooms, hidden hallways and cryptic signs. As with Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco proves himself the master of a genre with which most are only familiar through the pale shadow that is Dan Brown. Eco’s research is legendary, if you can get past the pomposity, which is generally quite easy.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Reamde (2011)

by Neal Stephenson

The sweeping, all-encompassing nature of the plot reminded me strongly of the Baroque Cycle (also by Stephenson). His attention to detail in some cases was at times tedious, but his dialogue and character development are top-notch. There are plenty of cool heroes here, with only a handful of them belonging to the 1%, unlike so much other escapist fiction these days.

The Cryptonomicon took us to Southeast Asia with hackers and programmers and dealt with ultra-secret code-crackers, chip-manufacturing plants and groups of people connected by tenuous though significant strands over decades.

This book also takes us to Southeast Asia and to many other places besides, with a good part of it taking place in the Pacific Northwest, on both sides of the U.S./Canadian border.

In the detailed notes, I try to summarize what I remember having happened in this book because it was quite literally one of the wildest rides I’ve read, with what would have been ludicrous coincidences from many other authors. Detailed in Stephenson’s style, however, the story arc remained cohesive throughout over 1000 pages. Spoilers abound in the summary below, so proceed with caution.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013)

by David Sedaris

This is another collection of essays about Sedaris’s life in France and now England and his quirky/crazy family, all told in his inimitable style. He covers topics from child-rearing tips (he has no children of his own) to his former lifestyle as a young, avant-garde artist to his one-man attack on the litter of England, where he’d moved after living in Normandy[1], to commentary on modern life, particularly the egocentricity of it all, not without noting the irony of an author who can’t seem to write about anything but himself.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (1964)

by Joanne Greenberg

This is the story of one woman’s struggle with mental illness/schizophrenia in a mental institution in the U.S. in the late 50s/early 60s. It is semi-autobiographical and contains what felt like authentic and insightful descriptions of what mental illness feels like. Well-written and evocative examples abound in the citations included below.

There are several instances where she writes that her senses just shut down. She sees in only two dimensions; she can barely hear anything; she sees only shades of gray and often through a pinhole, a keyhole, a slit. She cannot feel anything. She burns her flesh and doesn’t feel the pain. She eats but does not taste and does not remember having eaten.

She tells of watching other patients in this catatonia, being struck by other wild patients and not reacting at all. They only blink slowly. This is a communication failure between one without senses and one with a private language. It’s utterly fascinating when thought of in these terms.

It’s also a metaphor for how the so-called normal people interact with one another, making the same mistakes but less overtly and less catastrophically poorly. On a class, caste or national level, the catastrophic miscommunication is the same.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Brothers Karamazov (1880)

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Like Tolstoy’s novels, this was published in series in a magazine of the time called The Messenger. There isn’t much of an encompassing story arc—at least not when compared to more modern authors, like Stephenson (above) or Martin (below)—so it’s hard to call it a novel as such. It felt more like a collection of short stories and novellas that included the same cast of characters.

The first part is a long introduction to the debauched family of the Karamazovs and the other locals whom they’ve drawn into their tawdry orbit. At the center of the first act is the patriarch Fyodor, who argumentatively fences with his three sons, Ivan, Dmitri (Mitya) and Alexander (Alyosha). There is a fourth (possible) son in the person of Smerdyakov.

A subsequent longer section is a sermon by Ivan, as told to Alyosha. This was the most interesting part of the book. It is also the most famous part, for which many seem to excuse the other 95% of relatively mediocre material.

With modern literature—that is, written during my time or near to it, say mid-20th century and onward—I can usually determine the intended tone of the writing. Is the author espousing his own views through a character? Or is the author espousing views he does not support through that character? If a character is ludicrous and pompous and just out-and-out wrong-headed, I can laugh along, knowing that the author intended to parody opposing worldviews.

However, with Dostoyevsky (and, to a lesser degree, with Tolstoy), while I know what I think of the characters and their views, I am often unsure of what the author intended. I feel like the guy who laughs out loud at a sad movie because he doesn’t realize that the director was being dead-serious.

This doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the writing—such as it is—but it certainly makes it more difficult to slog through long conversations between what I consider to be fools discussing utter foolishness when I don’t know whether the author is in on the joke. In net effect, I feel that I can read more of the exact same writing when I know it’s a parody than when I feel that the author intended to convey what he or she considers to be deep truths.

It may reflect poorly on me, I suppose.

Perhaps something is lost in translation or there is too great a distance between the culture that created the literature. I feel that my enjoyment of this type of great literature is too superficial. I see sparks where I feel that I am in on the joke, where I appreciate a bit of cleverness or phrase, but I am saddled with doubt that I am enjoying the right thing.

On the other hand, I don’t want to be told by experts how I’m supposed to enjoy the book. I would like to be able to enjoy the ins and outs without help but, short of becoming a fluent reader of Russian and possibly more of an expert on a culture and mindset that lies over a century in the past, this will not be possible. That is, I can enjoy other good works on a much deeper level that I can these great works of art.

That’s OK, though. I just wish that people would hedge their recommendation that “everyone should read these” to acknowledge that the level of enjoyment, satisfaction and understanding will vary greatly. While this is always the case, it is all the more likely when the original language and culture of the author of the work stands in such stark contrast to that of the reader.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

The Idiot (1869)

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The idiot is the tale of a Russian expatriate named Prince Lef Muishin who returns to Russia from having lived in Switzerland. He was sent to Switzerland in order to cure his chronic epilepsy, which rendered him stupefied and nearly speechless—for all intents and purposes an idiot.

He returns penniless but quickly ingratiates himself to a noble family, which agrees to take him in, if only for a while. The cast of characters surrounding him is wild and foolish and, as in so many other Russian novels, utterly and completely useless. There is almost no indication of where money comes from—it might just as well grow on trees. The others consider the prince an idiot, but he evinces deeper philosophical thinking than the rest of them put together and is much more eloquent, to boot. I assumed that to be part of the irony intended by the author (see mydiscussion of such assumptions above, in my notes on The Brothers Karamazov).

The plot is very bare, but consists of sketches, almost like theater pieces, that feels much more like The Brothers Karamazov than his earlier work Crime and Punishment.

Dostoyevsky doesn’t waste many words on descriptions of places or people (at least in this novel; see my notes on Crime and Punishment below for a different story). Places have names, women are beautiful and men are distinguished. Occasionally someone is said to have a mustache but this level of descriptiveness seems to exhaust the author and it generally ends there.

As in The Brothers Karamazov, the characters ricochet from joy to abject misery within seconds, constantly shouting and rejoicing as if they are capable of feeling only exaggerated emotions. People fall in love in minutes. It’s kind of crazy, really, and sometimes hard to understand how something that reads so much like a Mexican telenovella script can be called some of the world’s best literature. There is almost no metaphor or simile in The Idiot (in contrast to The Brothers Karamazov, which had a bit more philosophizing, particularly by Ivan).

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Crime and Punishment (1866)

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Crime and Punishment is different from Dostoyevsky’s later novels—significantly so. Here the descriptions of the environment, the characters and the situations are visceral and wonderfully done. The misery is heartrending but at least it doesn’t feel plastic and fake. There are descriptions on a par with the masters of the form, Tolstoy or Twain, whose depictions of nature were absolutely lovely and evoked comparably visceral emotion.

His descriptions of despair and suffering and entrapment-by-life are unparalleled. The situations he posits seem unreal though they were likely all too real for all too many. The past tense is inappropriate here, for even in the modern day, in the most modern of countries, the cruelty of Dostoyevsky’s reality is played out day after sorrowful, miserable day with no hope or end in sight, other than through the sweet, sweet release of death.

The scene with the horse pulling the overloaded carriage (see notes below for citations) is noteworthy because of the depths of human depravity it shows, the utter disregard for another creature’s suffering. A similar scene with an old, old whale in Moby Dick would remind me of this one. The scene is presumably a metaphor for the way in which the less fortunate are misused and mistreated and depleted by those above them, even if only a very little bit above them. Even if they themselves aren’t all so fortunate, all the more reason to dump on those less capable of defending themselves, all the more reason to make others suffer as they themselves are made to suffer by those above them. Or maybe it’s a cautionary tale of drunkenness; it’s hard to tell.

The false palliatives of religion are next on the chopping block, with its purveyors offering advice that is completely at odds with the common logic of life. Especially and exactly for those who suffer the most, that have the least to thank a supposedly benevolent but also mysterious and uncaring God.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Age of Ultron (2013)
This is the comic-book series on which the upcoming Avengers movie is based. It was a bit woodenly written, but what the hell, I’d just finished three Dostoyevsky novels: what did I expect? The artwork wasn’t really my style and the story was about time-travel, in an effort to stop Ultron. See the Wikipedia article for a full summary. It passed the time.
Superior Spider-Man (2013)
This is the series of Spider-Man comics that followed Doctor Octavius’s physical death, during which he imposed his psyche and memories—his entire mind—into the brain of Peter Parker. This pushes Peter’s mind to the background and Octavius takes over as Spider-Man. People notice as he finally starts to take charge in a way that Peter never did. Despite Peter’s quite advanced intellect, he never quite had the willpower of Doc Ock, and never achieved nearly as much as when Ock is in the driver’s seat. Doc employs his penchant for technological devices to enhance Spider-Man’s reach and power and becomes a tyrant over New York—although it’s admitted that he’s doing quite a good job of crime-fighting. All in all, a decent comic series. The Team-Up editions include some lovely, lovely work by Joe Madureira.
Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)

by Herman Melville

The impression I got of this work when I tried reading it as a teenager caused me to avoid reading it as an adult, until now. This is a pity because it is, for the most part, a wonderfully written and action-packed tale that puts you remarkably into the heart of a dangerous profession like whaling with a vividness I didn’t think possible. Not only that, but there are nuggets of wonderfully written wisdom strewn liberally throughout. The descriptions of the action are as visceral as Tolstoy’s.

“Few are the foreheads which like Shakespeare’s or Melancthon’s rise so high, and descend so low, that the eyes themselves seem clear, eternal, tideless mountain lakes; and all above them in the forehead’s wrinkles, you seem to track the antlered thoughts descending there to drink, as the Highland hunters track the snow prints of the deer.”

Highly recommended. Loved it.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Dracula (1897)

by Bram Stoker

This book charges out of the gate and is quite enthralling—no pun intended—in a very modern way. Unfortunately, after the whole merry band of characters is introduced and expertly knit together, the book bogs down in professions of fealty and undying love and respect and myriad other forms of swearing undying and lifelong allegiance to one another.

There is also the not easily overlooked heavily misogynistic aspect of the novel. The ladies Lucy and Mina are introduced as very clever and very capable…for ladies, that is. These females make the most of their paucity of gray matter with which the good Lord blessed them and all others of their ilk, those ill-fated bearers of only one, solitary type of chromosome. Stoker makes sure to let the inadequacy of the female thinking capacity be extensively explained by the women themselves, which seems to be the only thing at which the feeble intellect of a woman is capable of excelling.

They are not the only ones who suffer thusly. Dracula is also not considered very clever and possessed of only a child brain.

The group of gentlemen was perhaps revolutionary at the time, but is now somewhat trite: a doctor in charge of an insane asylum (Dr. Seward); a Renaissance man, well-learned in all manner of arcane minutiae who also happens to be well-acquainted with the dark corners of the occult, Dr. Van Helsing; a brave, competent and not unwealthy Texan in the form of Quincey Morris; a Lord Gondalming (Arthur Holmwood) who throws money and influence about; and, finally, Jonathan Harker, a lawyer who just happened to have come into a magnificent inheritance. The two ladies are, of course, more beautiful than anything this side of the angels. Not much tension there. It’s kind of like reading Stieg Larsson.

Read the first half, it’s quite good. The second half drags tremendously.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Raising Steam (2014)

by Terry Pratchett

The latest—and likely last[2]—of the DiscWorld books feels a bit like a last hurrah. Pratchett’s style is at times reminiscent of his old self, but is for at least half of the book much more stilted and preachier than was his wont. Still, the flight smooths out after a bit and it’s entertaining enough. There is no tension, as such, since you know that no-one important is going to die. All of the characters fulfill the roles that you expect them to. There are goblins and golems and gargoyles and gnomes as well as dwarves, vampires, igors, trolls and zombies. Humans are there too, of course. I also read Snuff at around the same time and preferred that by a wide margin.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Don Quixote (1605)

by Miguel de Cervantes

I read the first half of this wonderful classic in 2014; the second half followed in 2015. This is a consistently wonderfully written—and translated—classic that deserves to be one. Does it sometimes get repetitive? Is it, at times, a pastiche of whatever Cervantes happened to be writing about? Does it feel amazingly modern, considering it was written in the late 16th and early 17 centuries? Yes to all. I don’t know to whom I could recommend reading a gigantic classic text of this kind, but if you at all think it might be for you, you shouldn’t be disappointed.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Spider-Man: Ends of the Earth (2012)

This story pits Spider-Man against Doctor Octopus. Octopus is dying but he has gathered the Sinister Six and equipped them with a lot of technology that makes them much more dangerous. Spider-Man is not really Spider-Man anymore, not like the Spider-Man of the 20th century. He has a high-tech job, all the money he needs, he’s an Avenger, he no longer has a worry in the world. He’s changed. He wears high-tech armor, he flies around with rocket boots, he’s more like Iron Man than Spider-Man. In the first six books, he shot his webs once. The dialogue is flat, stilted and pathetic. Most of it reads like jingoistic propaganda—Sabra fights for Israel! Kangaroo fights for Australia! Union Jack for the U.K.! This is much worse than I remember. It’s about on par with the writing in the Civil War series: no nuance and just Libertarian or black/white/good/bad claptrap.

For example: Sabra says at one point, “I’m not sure accepting this job counts as “smart.” But if it will save Israelis, I accept it.” When she is shot in the head by something names “Crossbones”, he is described as a “Brutal Assassin [who] enjoys sandwiches.”

Then there’s Union Jack, who says that “[p]art of the reason I ride this old Triumph motorbike [is that it’s] British workmanship from way back when we had workmanship.”

This is just before he’s attacked by someone called “Slaymaster MK II”. What the hell is that? That’s a stupid hero name, a name for the Unreal games, a name for the Pokemon generation. And the cast of shitty characters just keeps on coming: GoGo Tomago, Everwraith, it’s just awful. This is just lazy writing. It’s not funny or piquant, as Spider-Man used to be. Mysterio and Chameleon are the only ones with anything approaching humorous banter. Not recommended.

The Long Earth (2013)

by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

This is the story of a near-future Earth where alternate universes are just a “step” away. Each is a complete Earth, most of which are almost entirely unpopulated. Some people can step with a gadget, others without one and others can’t step at all, remaining “trapped” on the mainline Earth. The story introduces this situation, provides some examples and then sends Joshua—a natural stepper—on an adventure far up the long line of Earths, accompanied by an AI named Lobsang. As usual, Baxter’s parts are technologically solid, but immediately recognizable for his wooden characterizations. Similarly, Pratchett’s style shines through in a few lovely, though shorter, chapters. It was good fun; recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Snuff (2012)

by Terry Pratchett

The vampires, the dwarves and the trolls of Discworld all had their liberation stories. This is the story of how the goblins of Discworld came to be accepted into society. The goblins show their penchant for creation and technology and are taken up in the clacks network. Vimes is on vacation at his wife’s ancestral home, of which he is technically the Lord. He of course has nothing in common with the self-styled aristocrats who are horrible, horrible racists and scheming bastards, trading in goblin slaves. This would all be worked out in the end in a rollicking Discworld story worthy of standing with Pratchett’s best. Recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Game of Thrones (1996)

by George R.R. Martin

This is book one of the Song of Ice and Fire.

Oh my goodness, where to begin? I’m not sure that there’s any point in summarizing a plot or in listing characters. This is a very tightly and well-written novel with a lot of lovely description, interesting characters, dozens of locations and storylines, all expertly interweaved and laid out by Mr. Martin. This first novel sets things up quite nicely, staying well-paced and interesting while introducing many of the characters that will accompany us through the next 5000 pages (so far—two more books to go).

The span and breadth of his vision are breathtaking—as is the execution. Martin’s writing style is perfectly suited to this genre. Though I’d heard that some of his prose was a bit long-winded, focused too much on loving and languorous descriptions of food, I found it to be quite tightly written and easy reading. In fairness, I read this book after having read a lot of nineteenth-century literature, so perhaps I was better prepared than most.

Summary: Ned Stark is in King’s Landing, but not for long. Robb Stark starts to raise the North. Jon is on the Wall, Daenarys gives birth a few times.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

Clash of Kings (1999)

by George R.R. Martin

This is book two of the Song of Ice and Fire. It continues the story begun in Game of Thrones. It takes us up to the Battle of Blackwater Bay, Jon’s foray into the North as a ranger and Daenarys’s departure from Qarth.

Watchmen (1986–1987)

by Alan Moore

These comic books are about the history of a troupe of self-nominated heroes from the 1930s up until the present-day of the late 1980s, when the world is threatened by nuclear conflict. In that, author Alan Moore crafted a world that only slightly diverged from reality. That is, it was close enough to be familiar and not require any explanation, but divergent enough to be fascinating. Part-time narrator and uncompromising literalist Rorschach stole the show, unable to understand how the solution to the world’s greatest problem could be rooted in an even bigger lie. Recommended.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

A Storm of Swords (2000)

by George R.R. Martin

This is book three of the Song of Ice and Fire. This one takes us up to the Red Wedding, follows Arya and her adventures with Beric Dondarrion as well as The Hound, finds Tyrion naming the Red Viper as his champion against The Mountain, and sees us through to his bloody escape. Jon rises in the ranks at the Wall (quite far) and Daenerys conquers in the East, stopping in Meereen to rule for a time.

I’ve included notes, citations and errata in a separate post.

[1] Sedaris would eventually have part of the highway named after him for efforts spanning several years.
[2] Yep. It was his last. RIP Sir Terry.

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea by Mark Blyth (read in 2015)

Published by marco on in Art, Film & Literature

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This excellent book provides an approachable analysis of the recent history of the financial crisis that started in 2006, exploded in 2008 and is still being sorely felt by many in 2015. Blyth skewers the main idea for solving the crisis: austerity for the majority of the public. Why is austerity not the solution? He lists many reasons, but the main one is that it doesn’t work. It has never worked. Accurate histories show that it doesn’t work. Inaccurate studies claim that it might work.

Worse, the crisis was caused by private machinations and profit-taking and the price is paid by the public—who’ve already paid the price in the form of a severely impacted economy. The public pays twice for the mistakescrimes of the few, while the few take their profit, take no punishment and line themselves up for the next reaping.

How do they get away with it? By selling the idea of austerity of all: if our economy tanked, then it must be our collective fault and we must all shoulder the blame and tighten our belts. The private losses are bailed out by the state and instantly transformed into a story of state profligacy. It’s like a child who crashes his car, gets his father to buy him a new one, then mocks said father for not being able to pay the rent.

Never mind that it is exactly these jackasses who aren’t tightening their belts—we can’t police everyone, can we? Never mind that exactly those who aren’t tightening their belts are actually the ones who caused the problems in the first place. With their crimes. Some will argue that what happened was perfectly legal—but that is only because those who commit crimes at high levels are careful to ensure that the crimes they wish to commit are first made legal.

This is an important book. Blyth cover the minutiae of recent history, covers the history of austerity over the last century, examines the writings and recommendations of oft-cited and great economists of the past—Locke, Hume, Smith, Keynes, among others—and looks at recent academic studies that are clearly if not deliberately fraudulent. He is a bit cagey about coming right out and accusing world leaders of collusion and corruption to serve their rich buddies and financial partners, but we can excuse an academic a bit of hedging. See below for my less-generous analysis and Blyth’s possible solutions.

“When world leaders keen to legitimize the damage that they have already done to the lives of millions of their fellow citizens reach for examples such as these to vindicate their actions, applauding these countries for creating misery, it shows us one this above all. Austerity remains an ideology immune to facts and basic empirical refutation.”
Page 226


“What changed was of course the global financial crisis of 2007–2008 that rumbles along in a new form today. The cost of bailing, recapitalizing, and otherwise saving the global banking system has been, depending on , as we shall see later, how you count it, between 3 and 13 trillion dollars. Most of that has ended up on the balance sheets of governments as they absorb the costs of the bust, which is why we mistakenly call this a sovereign debt crisis when in fact it is a transmuted and well-camouflaged banking crisis.”
Page 5
“This is, as we shall see over the next two chapters, why all of Europe needs to be austere, because each national state’s balance sheet has to act as a shock absorber for the entire system. Having already bailed out the banks, we have to make sure that there is room on the public balance sheet to backstop them. That’s why we have austerity. It’s still all about saving the banks.”
Page 7

Or, more precisely: having already used up an entire buffer to save the banks, we have to cut corners everywhere else in order to build up enough of a buffer to be able to save them again when the time comes, which it certainly will. That is, it’s not about saving the banks (present tense) but about being able to save the banks again (future, not subjunctive tense, because it’s certainly going to happen).

“There is no crisis of sovereign debt caused b sovereigns’ spending unless you take account of actual spending and continuing liabilities caused by the rupture of national banking systems. What begins as a banking crisis ends with a banking crisis, even it if goes through the states’ accounts. But there is a politics of making it appear to be the states’ fault such that those who made the bust don’t have to pay for it. Austerity is not just the price of saving the banks. It’s the price that the banks want someone else to pay.”
Page 7
“Since there are usually more debtors than creditors at any given time, and since creditors are by definition people with money to lend, democracy has, according to some, an inflationary bias. The politics of cutting inflation therefore take of [sic] the form of restoring the “real” value of money by pushing the inflation rate down through “independent” (from the rest of us) central banks. Creditors win, debtors lose. One can argue about the balance of benefits, but it’s still a class-specific tax.”
Page 9
“In essence, democracy, and the redistributions it makes possible, is a form of asset insurance for the rich, and yet, through austerity, we find that those with the most assets are skipping on the insurance payments.”
Page 14
"We have spent too much” those at the top say, rather blithely ignoring the fact that this “spending” was the cost of saving their assets with the public purse. Meanwhile, those at the bottom are being told to “tighten their belts” by people who are wearing massively larger pants and who show little interest in contributing to the cleanup.
Page 15
“You can blame regulators for being lax or negligent and politicians for caving to banking interests all you like, but this was a quintessentially private-sector crisis, and it was precisely how you get a multi-billion-dollar financial panic out of a bunch of defaulting mortgages. But it was not yet sufficient to cause a global crisis. To get there, you have to understand how the structure of these mortgage securities combined with unbacked insurance policies called “credit default swaps” (CDSs)[1] to produce a “correlation bomb” that spread the repo[2] market crisis into the global banking system. Again, this had nothing to do with states and their supposedly profligate spending habits and everything to do with weaknesses internal to the private sector.”
Page 26
“With a decade of house-price increases telling everyone that house prices only go up, and with these new mortgage derivatives seemingly eliminating a correlation problem that was deemed small to being with and was now insurable with a CDS, you could almost being to believe that you had what bankers call a “free option”: an asset with zero downside and a potentially unlimited upside, and one that is rated AAA by the ratings agencies. The fact that many investment funds are legally required to hold a specific proportion of their assets as AAA securities pumped demand still further.”
Page 29
“Repo runs can start it, and derivatives can amplify it, but to be truly blindsided by a crisis of this magnitude you need to have a theory of risk that denies that catastrophic events can happen in the first place, and then leave it entirely to the self-interested private sector to manage that risk. Unfortunately, almost the entire global financial system worked with just such a theory of risk management.”
Page 31

The last sentence here betrays a writing style—and thinking style—that presumes innocence in the face of a tremendous amount of evidence to the contrary. Blyth is not a prosecutor and has no obligation to avoid the obvious hypothesis that the entire financial system did exactly this because it allowed them to capitalize on massive short-term gains while letting the rest of the world clean up the mess. His formulation leaves the door open to them just having fooled themselves into thinking that a good thing could last forever. They didn’t fool themselves. They knew it was bullshit. But if they could convince everyone else that it wasn’t bullshit, they could get away with some massive short-terms gains before the whole game blew up, they pulled up stakes and got the hell out of dodge. A classic con, no more, no less. Just at a global scale.

“Like the proverbial drunk looking for his keys only under the lamppost, we are drawn to see the “normal” distributions in decidedly nonnormal worlds because that is where we find the light.”
Page 37
“The flaw in the logic was once again the expectation that the whole cannot be different from its component parts, that the denial of fallacies of composition haunts us once again. The neoclassical insistence on grounding everything in the micro suggested that if you make the parts safe (individual banks armed with the right risk models), then you make the whole (banking system) safe. But it turned out that the whole was quite different from the sum of its parts because the interaction of the parts produced outcomes miles away from the expectation of the instruction sheet, a sheet that was quite wrong about the world in the first place.”
Page 43
“I hope this demonstrates that any narrative that locates wasteful spending by governments prior to 2007 as the cause of the crsis is more than just simply wrong; it is disingenuous and partisan. In fact, average OECD debt before the crisis was doing down, not up. What happened was banks promised growth, delivered losses, passed the cost on to the state, and then the state got the blame for generating the debt, and the crisis, in the first place, which of course, must be paid for by expenditure cuts. The banks may have made the losses, but the citizenry will pay for them. This is a pattern we see repeatedly in the crisis.”
Page 47

“Maybe the $13 trillion coast to date was a price worth paying? Perhaps. But only if the costs had been shared according to both ability to pay and responsibility for the bust, but they were not.

“As we shall see in the next chapter, what was a private-sector banking crisis was rechristened by political and financial elites as a crisis of sovereign state in a matter of months. […] Europe usually sits to the left of the United states politically, but it was acting far to its right economically by mid-2010.”

Page 49
“The ideal policy back in 2009 would have cost around 50 billion euros. It would have required either the ECB, or Germany as its major creditor, to buy the secondary-market Greek debt that was subject to near-term rollover risk, bury it somewhere deep in its balance sheet, and walk away. Why didn’t they do so? One answer lies in German politics. There was a regional election coming up in Germany, and it was politically easier to blame the Greeks for being feckless than it was to explain to the German public that the ECB needed to bail them out for reasons of systemic risk.[3] The other answer lies in the ECB statutes that forbid one country to bail out another for fear of generating moral hazard.”
Page 64
“Fearing financial Armageddon, the Irish government issued a blanket guarantee for the entire banking system’s liabilities, and that 400 percent of assets as GDP on the private sector’s balance sheet very suddenly became the Irish public’s problem.”
Page 66
“Ireland and Spain were quintessential private-sector-housing-cum-banking crises, governed by states more fiscally prudent than Germany, where the risks were socialized while the profits were privatized. In all cases, private-sector weaknesses ended up creating public-sector liabilities that European publics now have to pay for with austerity programs that make the situation worse rather than better. The fiscal crisis in all these countries was the consequence of the financial crisis washing up on their shores, not its cause. To say it is the cause is to deliberately, and politically, confuse cause and effect.”
Page 73
“Just as in 2008, these banks were borrowing overnight to fund loans over much longer periods.”
Page 85
“recall that in the United States in 2008, the collateral being posted for repo borrowing began to lose value. As such, the firms involved had to post more collateral to borrow the same amount of money, or they ran out of liquidity real fast, which is what happened to the US banking system. The same thing began to happen in Europe. While mortgage-backed securities, the collateral of choice for US borrowers in the US repo markets, were AAA-rated, for European borrowers in London the collateral of choice was AAA-rated European sovereign debt. Just as US borrowers needed a substitute for T-bills and turned to AAA mortgage bonds, so European borrowers had too-few nice, safe German bonds to pledge as collateral since the core banks were busy dumping them for periphery debt. So they began to pledge the periphery debt they had purchased en masse, which was, after all, rated almost the same, an policy that was turbocharged by a EC directive that “established that the bonds of Eurozone sovereigns would be treated equally in repo transactions” in order to build more liquid European markets. By 2008, PIIGS debt was collateralizing 25 percent of all European repo transactions. You can begin to see the problem.”
Page 85

From a hypothetical letter to the Voting Public:

“The entire economy is in recession, people are paying back their debts, and no one is borrowing. This causes prices to fall, thus making the banks even more impaired and economy ever more sclerotic. This is literally nothing we can do about this. We need to keep the banks solvent or they collapse, and they are so big and interconnected that even one of them going down could blow up the whole system. As awful as austerity is, it’s nothing compared to a general collapse of the financial system, really.

“So we can’t inflate and pass the cost on to savers, we can’t devalue and pass the cost on to foreigners, and we can’t default without killing ourselves, so we need to deflate, for as long as it takes to get the balance sheets of these banks into some kind of sustainable shape. This is why we can’t let anyone out of the euro. If the Greeks, for example, left the euro,we might be able to weather i, since most banks have managed to sell on their Greek assets. But you can’t sell on Italy. There’s too much of it. The contagion risk would destroy everyone’s banks. So the only policy tool we have to stabilize the system is for everyone to deflate against Germany, which is a really hard thing to do even in the best of times. it’s horrible, but there it is. Your unemployment will save the banks, and in the process save the sovereigns who cannot save the banks themselves, and thus save the euro. We, the political classes of Europe, would like to thank you for your sacrifice.”

Page 89–90
“It turns out that cross-border borrowing in euros is, when bond markets reflect true risk premiums, just like borrowing in a foreign currency, with the result that banks increasingly want to match local loans with local assets. Although there is no exchange-rate risk to cover, if your sovereign’s yields go up and your parent economy deflates, then your ability to pay back your loans declines as if you were making payments in a depreciating currency.”
Page 91
“There was of course a worry that some states may not follow the rules, so more rules were put in place. But there was never much attention paid to the possibility that private actors, such as banks, would behave badly. Yet this is exactly what happened, and the EU is still blaming sovereigns, tying them down with new rules, and insisting that this will solve the problem. We can but think again about the old adage that drinks only look for their keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is.”
Page 92
“However, as Karl Polanyi noted at the end of World War II, there is nothing natural about markets. Turning people into wage laborers, securing the private ownership of land, even inventing capital and preserving its monetary form are all deeply political projects that involve courts, regulation, enforcement, bureaucracy, and all the rest. Indeed, gaining control of the state by the merchant class was a defining feature of early capitalism.”
Page 99

“As Locke argued, “whatsoever then he removes out of eh state [of] nature…[and] mixed his labor with…[he] thereby makes it his property.” Now, you might think that other folks at the time would object to someone taking possession of the common land this way. But Locke insists that, “the taking of this or that part [of land] does not depend on the express consent of all the commoners” because “there was still enough [for all] and as good left.”

“Having dispatched the problem of distribution by assuming infinite abundance, Locke maintains that the only real argument against private property is the issue of spoilage, that more is taken than can be used, which God would not like. Luckily, then, time and habits have given us a device called money that allows us to get over the problem of spoilage because we can store money and swap it for consumables at any given time.”

Page 105

I’m assuming that Blyth’s tongue was planted firmly in his cheek when writing the last sentence.

“For Hume, merchants are the catalyst for trade and the creators of wealth. They are, according to Hume, “one of the most useful races of men, who serve as agents between …parts of the state.” As a consequence, “it is necessary, and reasonable, that a considerable part of the commodities and labor [produced] should belong to the merchant, to whom, in great measure, they are owing.” While “lawyers and physicians beget no industry,” only merchants can “encrease industry, and by also increasing frugality, give a great command of that industry to particular members of society.” Those “particular members of society” would, of course, be Hume and those like him: the merchant classes.”
Page 107
“For [Adam] Smith, the act of saving drives investment, not consumption. Why? Because the wealth of the nation is its total income. Take what is used for the reproduction of labor (wages) out of this income, and what is left is profit. Profits are then reinvested in the economy via merchants’ savings, which are lent out to the productive members of society (other merchants) to invest. Today we call this supply-side economics. Investment both drives consumption and makes consumption possible—not the other way around. Because of this “the greater part of it [income] will naturally be destined for the employment of industry.” Underlying this worldview is a particularly Scottish psychology that is worth unpacking because it suggests why the idea of austerity has such moral force, even today.”
Page 111
“Most interestingly, [Smith] is disarmingly honest concerning the political effects of capitalism, noting that “wherever there is property there is great inequality,” such that “ the acquisition of valuable and extensive property…necessarily requires the establishment of civil government.” A civil government that, “ in so far as it is instituted for the security of property, is in reality instituted for the defense of the rich against the poor, or of those who have some property against those who have none at all.””
Page 112
“First, [Keynes] showed that although any worker can accept a wage cut to price himself into employment, if all workers did this, it would in the aggregate lower consumption and prices, and thus increase the real wage (the wage-minus-price effects), leaving the worker who “adjusted” poorer and just as unemployed. Second, he showed that under conditions of uncertainty about the future, it is irrational for any investor to invest rather than sit on cash, with the result that if investors look to each other for signals about what to do, they all sit on cash and no one will invest. Thus we bring about, by out collective self-interested actions, the very depression we are individually trying to avoid.”
Page 127
“In this world spending, and with it debt, especially by the government, becomes good policy. Individual saving as a virtue, in contrast, falls to the paradox of thrift: if we all save (the very definition of austerity), we all fail together as the economy shrinks form want of demand.”
Page 128
“Most importantly for Schumpeter, this scale-shift takes a cultural toll. Whereas in the past “the rugged individualism of Galileo was the individualism of the rising capitalist class”, today, technology and bureaucracy have together removed the possibilities for such individuals to thrive. As he laments, “the capitalist process rationalizes behavior and ideas and by doing so chases from our minds…metaphysical belief” such that “economic progress becomes depersonalized and automatized.” When large firms take over production it is not the entrepreneur’s income that is replaced. After all, he gets shares in these new conglomerates. Rather, his social function is made redundant, “the stock exchange [being] a poor substitute for the holy grail” This may lead to a material progress, to more consumption and all that Keynes thinks important, but it is for Schumpeter a morally empty future. It is also one that invites jealousy from the lower orders who, led on by classes of functionless left-leaning intellectual who resent capitalism, have become accustomed to ever-rising standards of living and can no longer accept the dislocations of the market. Thus, the disorder of the previous decades is little more than the inability of the spoiled masses to accept necessary adjustments.”
Page 130
“If Schumpeter reminds you of Ayn Rand’s character John Galt, he should: he’s cut from the same conservative cloth. And, as in Galt’s long speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged, what started as a robust defense of economic liberalism ends up being a weak retreat from it. With the Keynesian view ascendant, conservatives like Schumpeter had a choice: admit that they were wrong (or at least accommodate themselves to the new ideas that seemed to fit the facts better than the old ones) or find something else to talk about. Schumpeter chose the latter path, and so he spoke about the death of saving, the end of family virtue, and the triumph of bureaucracy.”
Page 130–131
“Especially when parliaments get involved, elements of the administrative order can be captured by the most powerful members of the transactional order, hence the fear of cartels and private power.”
Page 136

“In the case of Greece and Italy, if that meant deposing a few democratically elected governments, then so be it.

“[…] The basic objection made by late-developing states, such as the countries of East Asia, to the Washington Consensus/Anglo-American idea “liberalize and then growth follows” was twofold. First, this understanding mistakes the outcomes of growth, stable public finances, low inflation, cost competitiveness, and so on, for the causes of growth. second, the liberal path to growth only makes sense if you are an early developer, since you have no competitors—pace the United Kingdom in the eighteenth century and the United States in the nineteenth century. Yet in the contemporary world, development is almost always state led.”

Page 142

Blyth references Ha-Joon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder in a footnote, but it seems to me that he either mis-stated or at least failed to emphasize the full point. He got the first half right: liberalization of an economy before it is on at least somewhat equal footing with potential competitors or trade partners is a fool’s game that benefits only those competitors or trade partners. The second point that Chang made was that neither Britain nor the US did this either during their own buildup. In fact, they were both highly protectionist, despite there being no real competition, as Blyth notes. Chang would go on to show that every economy considered great today started off extremely protectionist and gradually dropped trade barriers and increased liberalization only after it knew it would be the primary beneficiary of such policies.

“Suitably incentivized, entrepreneurs hire more people and buy more materials, which pushes up prices and wages. This produces a classic short-run monetary stimulus effect that beings to show up in rising prices, particularly asset prices, which encourages still more borrowing. The underlying economy, however, has not changed. There is simply more money chasing fewer goods: an inflation. Realizing their error, banks now stand to make losses, so they do everything they can to not realize those losses. They extend more credit, lower interest rates further, and generally kick the can down the road.”
Page 146
“Companies may be sitting on piles of ash and not investing, but the recession is no, as Keynes would have you believe, the capitalists’ fault. Rather, investors are quite reasonably covering the risk of backdoor expropriation by the state through inflation or devaluation. The fear of the state taking away your property—the original liberal nightmare—rears its head once more. Instead, “public opinion is perfectly right to see the crisis…as the consequence of the policy of the banks” Consequently, the sum of the Austrian view is that we should have let the banks fail and the restart the system.”
Page 148
“One of America’s Great Depression-era monetary economists, Irving Fisher, analyzed how, much to his dismay, depressions do not in fact “right themselves” owing to a phenomenon called debt inflation. Simply put, as the economy deflates, debts increase as incomes shrink, making it harder to pay off debt the more the economy craters. This, in turn, causes consumption to shrink, which in the aggregate pulls the economy down further and makes the debt to be paid back all the greater.”
Page 150
“It’s a great instruction sheet—so long as you are indeed the late-developing, high-savings, high-technology, and export-driven economy in question. If you are not, as the periphery of the Eurozone is finding out, then it’s a one-way ticket to permanent austerity.”
Page 151

“As a consequence, policy making should be delegated away from democratically elected politicians to independent conservative central bankers who will dish out the bad medicine when required because their jobs do not depend upon pleasing constituents—except, perhaps, their constituents in the financial sector who benefit from ultralow inflation […]


“Their evidentiary basis, however, was another matter entirely. The fact that these theories rest upon incredibly narrow operational premises and have scant evidence going for them is beside the point. That they are highly effective policy rhetorics that only narrow the menu of choice for governments is what matters.”

Page 157–158

“Similarly, the notion that unemployment is voluntary is, in the context of the current self-inflicted wound in Europe, downright offensive. Real workers must pay bills and feed families from jobs that have fixed hours and fixed wage rates. The idea that workers “trade off” labor against leisure by figuring out the real wage rate and then slacking off or going on an indefinite unpaid leave is the type of thinking that leads us to see the Great Depression as a giant, unexpected, and astonishingly long unpaid vacation for millions of people: original, yes; helpful no.

“Public choice theory, like any universal gizmo, has not only helped revolutionize the institutional relationship between voters, politicians, and bankers in democratic societies, it has become, as Daniel Dennett said about evolution in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, the “universal acid” that eats away everything it touches by turning everything into a principal-agent/rent-seeking problem.”

Page 159
“What Karl Polanyi once said about the failed ideas of an earlier era also rings true in this instance: by the standards of the IMF, the Washington Consensus’s “spectacular failure…did not destroy its authority at all. Indeed, its partial eclipse may have even strengthened its hold since it enabled its defenders to argue that the incomplete application of its principles was the reason for every and any difficulty laid to its charge.” Once again, when it comes to austerity, mere facts seldom get in the way of a good ideology. And a good ideology, in the absence of supporting facts, can always supply a few good models to generate those facts when needed.”
Page 165
“Alesina and Ardagna being by noting that the ballooning of debts and deficits across the OECD is due in large part to the “bailout[s] of various types in the financial sector.” However, about this they “have nothing to say”. What they do have to say is that regardless of how we got into this mess, the only way out is through cutting the state.”
Page 173
“Austerity’s continuing application may well result in the eventual breakup of the Eurozone and have political repercussions that the weak institutions of the EU are unlikely to withstand.”
Page 176
“As Fred Block put it with justified irony, “The American contribution to…the problem was to lend Germany huge sums of capital, which were then used to finance reparations payments.” If you think this sounds a little like continually giving the European periphery loans that those countries can never hope to pay back because of their already high debt burdens, again, you would not be completely wrong.”
Page 185
“Given the relatively large size of the US domestic economy, increasing domestic demand was bound to have a significant effect. Second, as a consequence, the net effect of Roosevelt’s policies was to increase government spending and debt while bringing unemployment down to 17 percent by 1936. No good dead goes unpunished, of course, and this turnaround in the economy by late 1936 created demands for a return to balanced budgets, sound finance, and America’s second round of austerity in 1937.”
Page 188
“So when Churchill put Britain back on gold in 1925, the domestic economy was quite deliberately going to be squeezed so that the value of sterling and, not coincidentally, the profits of finance, would be maintained.”
Page 189
“The currency depreciation that getting off gold facilitated helped restore exports, but with the Treasury view of the economy still dominant, Britain continued to stagnate with endemic high unemployment until rearmament, the crudest form of stimulus, created the conditions for recovery. Inflation, the great fear of the rentier class, never appeared. Never once did austerity help.”
Page 191
“In Vienna in 2009, and long before any Greek or Irish bailout, an agreement was signed between the Western banks, the troika (EU-IMF-EC), and Romania, Hungary, and Latvia that committed Western European banks to keeping their funds in their Eastern European banks if these governments committed to austerity to stabilize local banks’ balance sheets. The Vienna agreement prevented the liquidity crunch from spreading to the rest of the REBLLS, so long as the same balance-sheet guarantee (austerity) was applied elsewhere—and it was. Once again, it was all about saving the banks, and the bill for doing so, in the form of austerity, high interest rates, unemployment, and the rest, was dumped once again on the public sector balance sheet of the states concerned.”
Page 221
“Let’s stop for a moment and take this all in. A set of patently unsustainable and unstable economies financed by foreign credit bubbles blew up, quite predictably, the minute there was a shock to these economies. These countries are now supposed to be the role models for the rest of the world to follow? Spain is in bad shape, certainly, but is it really supposed to hollow out its economy entirely and live off more foreign borrowed money? Is Italy supposed to abandon its competitive export sector and sell of its banks? That would be what “following the example of the REBLLs” actually means. In fact, these so-called “models” are little more than the worst features of Ireland, Spain, and Greece combined, with no compensatory airbags, a sideline in divide-and-rule ethnic politics, and a libertarian instruction sheet.”
Page 222
“When world leaders keen to legitimize the damage that they have already done to the lives of millions of their fellow citizens reach for examples such as these to vindicate their actions, applauding these countries for creating misery, it shows us one this above all. Austerity remains an ideology immune to facts and basic empirical refutation.”
Page 226
“Part of what follows is a conjecture—the business model of investment banking may be dying. If so, all the money we spent and have lost in recession was wasted on a system that may be in terminal decline anyway.”
Page 231
“[…] deprived of fuel for the asset cycle, all those wonderful paper assets that can be based off these booms—commodity ETFs, interest rate swaps, CDOs and CDSs—to name but a few—will cease to be the great money machine that they have been to date. Having pumped and dumped every asset class on the planet, finance may have exhausted its own growth model. The banks’ business model for the past twenty-five years may be dying. If so, saving it in the bust is merely, and most expensively, prolonging the agony.”
Page 234

But, most importantly, the purveyors of the dying business model are able to escape any negative effects of its death. Instead, those that never benefited from it in the first place will bear the cost of its funeral. The bankers have a win-win. They win while the public is still willing to be fleeced by the game, and they win when the public buys the next con: that the banks must be bailed or it will be worse for everyone.

“Meanwhile, what growth there is seems to be on the retail rather than the investment banking side. But retail depends more directly on the real economy, which is shrinking because of austerity. In sum, we may have impoverished a few million people to save an industry of dubious social utility that is now on its last legs.”
Page 234

I would strike “dubious” here.

“Irish debt to GDP was 32 percent in 2007. Today it stands at 108.2 percent after three years of austerity. Indeed, if the cost of NAMA is added to the national accounts, Ireland’s debt-to-GDP ratio would rival that of Greece. Ireland bailed its banks, and then banked on an export-led recovery without a devaluation that was based upon phantom exports that create very few jobs and that are only made possible by tax dodging. Apparently this is Greece’s role model.”
Page 237

NAMA is the National Asset Management Agency, which was formed to manage the debt burden of 4x GDP taken on by the Irish government when it agreed to bail out its banks for 100 cents on the dollar. The tax dodgers to which Blyth refers are American high-tech companies—primarily Google and Apple—that expatriate their profits in order to avoid paying US taxes.

“So we are talking taxes, which no one likes. But since I found out that in 2010 I paid more in taxes than the General Electric Corporation—really, I did, and so did you—I’m willing to give financial repression a chance. Yes, it will greatly limit my opportunities to buy and trade exotic derivatives and engage in international financial arbitrage games, but you know what? I’m willing to give it up. After thirty years of all the gains and all the tax guts going to the people you who brought us the bubble, payback is coming. Not because of Occupy Wall Street and not because of my personal preferences, but because it’s so much easier and more effective to do than it is to enforce self-defeating austerity that it’s bound to happen.”
Page 241–242

I’m afraid that while I share Blyth’s sentiment, I don’t share his confidence in the inevitability of repression, which is tax on captive bondholders. Under repression, bondholders are forced to hold on to their investments even when the interest rates are no longer satisfactory (or something very much like that). Essentially, it’s a way of slowing down the hopping-around of the investor class and making them bear at least some of the brunt of downturns rather than letting their capital skip around willy-nilly, pulling in only positive results everywhere while letting someone else—read: the public—bear the costs. The concept is similar to the brake that would be exacted by a transaction tax—which would make hopping directly expensive—but people have been talking about something like that for four decades and the powers-that-be have so far mostly avoided it (except for some countries in Europe, which have it, and the EU as a whole, which is, at least, discussing….or was).

“If anything, it’s the absence of the state in the repo markets that’s worth commenting upon, since the absence of the state’s guarantee of insurance explains the system’s vulnerability to a bank run.”
Endnote 10 on page 248
“A CDS is called a swap but is actually quite different from most swaps. It was called a swap mostly to avoid regulations that would kick in it it were named what it really is, an insurance contract. Insurance requires reserves to be set aside, but swaps don’t, which was a huge part of their problem.”
Endnote 13 on page 248
“[…] if everyone tries to become fully diversified, then, paradoxically, they will end up buying more or less the same assets, and using the same hedges to cover their exposures, which is what had happened by 2006. Their individual portfolios may be diversified even if the sum of those portfolios is not. This is why so-called systemic risk, which is in part the risk you cannot diversify, never really goes away.”
Endnote 23 on page 249

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (read in 2015)

Published by marco on in Art, Film & Literature

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of a possible future America in which society has taken a rather hard, right turn into a dystopian, quasi-religious patriarchy—much more extreme even than what exists today.[1] In this world, women have no rights whatsoever. Some are used as drudges—Marthas—while others—Aunts—inculcate the new regime to the breeders—Handmaids—and, finally, there are the Wives. Among the men, the Commanders are at the top of the food chain—they are married to Wives—but also have a series of Handmaids. There are other men, high-ranking soldiers—Angels—as well as spies—Eyes.

The prose is poetic, evocative, metaphorical, at-times almost hallucinatory—as if the mists of recollection have twisted certain parts of the remembered past. The ideas and chilling visions are just as likely to happen as they were in the 80s, when the book was written. There are good portions of the American population who would happily view the book as a guide to revolution, to creating a better version of America. At times reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984. Highly recommended.


With such a strict regime in place, there is, of course, the necessity of keeping potential uprisings under control. The following passage is reminiscent of U.S. or Israeli justification for civilian deaths in their respective occupied territories.

“Last week they shot a woman, right about here. She was a Martha. She was fumbling in her robe, for her pass, and they thought she was hunting for a bomb. They thought we was a man in disguise. There have been such incidents.”
Page 30

The following passage depicts the main character’s[2] thoughts about what the seriously under-serviced and over-brainwashed soldiers think when they see women. Instead of gratification, they think of the terror that would be visited on them, with only the carrot of very distantly eventual satisfaction in a dim, barely to-be-hoped-for future.

“But more likely they don’t think in terms of clothing discarded on the lawn. If they think of a kiss, they must then think immediately of the floodlights going on, the rifle shots. They think instead of doing their duty and of promotion to the Angels, and of being allowed possibly to marry, and then, if they are able to gain enough power and live to be old enough, of being allotted a Handmaid of their own.”
Page 32

The Aunts are in charge of indoctrination. Here, Lydia smugly teaches the women that the two freedoms she names are equal: as if a freedom conferred on you by another is any kind of freedom at all.

“There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it.”
Page 34

This next citation is about doctors who performed abortions—this part rings the truest for parts of America today.

“These men, we’ve been told, are like war criminals. It’s no excuse that what they did was legal at the time: their crimes are retroactive. They have committed atrocities, and must be made into examples, for the rest. Though this is hardly needed. No woman in her right mind, these days, would seek to prevent a birth, should she be so lucky as to conceive.”
Page 43

In this passage, we are offered a glimpse into a past where the patriarchal situation depicted in the book was initiated by revolutions in which the primarily women burned unacceptable books and magazines and other supposedly oppressive materials. Thirty years after the writing of this book and the SJW movement is rushing in this direction, as if thought-suppression has ever amounted to anything good.

“The woman handed me one of the magazines. It had a pretty woman on it, with no clothes on, hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands. I looked at it with interest. It didn’t frighten me. I thought she was swinging, like Tarzan from a vine, on the TV.

“Don’t let her see it, said my mother. Here, she said to me, toss it in, quick.

“I threw the magazine into the flames. It riffled open in the wind of its burning; big flakes of paper came loose, sailed into the air, still on fire, parts of women’s bodies, turning to black ash, in the air, before my eyes.”

Page 48

The Wife for whom Offred works is named Serena Joy, a former TV star who became a spokesperson for the male “revolution” quite early on. Here her depicted hypocrisy is typical of any politician: good for me but not for thee.

“Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy didn’t do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was making for the good of all.

“Around that time, someone tried to shoot her and missed; […] Someone else planted a bomb in her care but it went off too early. Though some people said she’s put the bomb in her own car, for sympathy. (Emphasis added.)”

Page 55

The roots of the patriarchy are deep—coming from today’s society, there isn’t that far to go. The following passages shows “truths” that are indoctrinated into the women by the Aunts in the first case, or by 18th-century painters in the second.

“I almost gasp: he’d said a forbidden word. Sterile. There is no such thing as a sterile man any more, not officially. There are only women who are fruitful and women who are barren, that’s the law.”
Page 70

“I remember walking in art galleries, through the nineteenth century: the obsession they had then with harems. Dozens of paintings of harems, fat women lolling on divans, turbans on their heads or velvet caps, being fanned with peacock tails, a eunuch in the backgrounds standing guard. Studies of sedentary flesh, painted by men who’d never been there. These pictures were supposed to be erotic, and I thought they were, at the time; but I see now what they were really about. They were paintings about suspended animations; about waiting, about objects not in use. They were paintings about boredom.

“But maybe boredom is erotic, when women do it, for men.”

Page 79

This next passage reminded me of the passages about Emmanuel Goldstein in 1984. The stories about smuggling are very similar to those from that book, or even the myriad stories of terrorists sneaking back and forth across the oh-so-porous U.S. border. The Lackawanna Five or the Liberty City Seven come to mind.

“They show us only victories, never defeats. Who wants bad news?

“Possibly [the rebel captive i]s an actor.

“The anchorman comes on now. His manner is kindly, fatherly; he gazes out at us from the screen, looking, with his tan and his white hair and candid eyes, wise wrinkles around them, like everybody’s ideal grandfather. What he’s telling us, his level smile implies, is for our own good. Everything will be all right soon. I promise. There will be peace. You must trust. Your must go to sleep, like good children.

“He tells us what we long to believe. He’s very convincing.

“I struggle against him. He’s like an old movie star, I tell myself, with false teeth and a face job. at the same time I sway towards him, like one hypnotized. If only it were true. If only I could believe.

“Now he’s telling us that an underground espionage ring has been cracked, by a team of Eyes, working with an inside informant. The ring has been smuggling precious national resources over the border into Canada.”

Page 93

In this first paragraph, Atwood twists a common aphorism by subtly adjusting the pronouns. In the next few paragraphs, Aunt Lydia explains how she will help a whole gender forget that it ever had equal rights—and that this will somehow be better for everyone.

“Not every Commander has a Handmaid: some of their Wives have children. From each, says the slogan, according to her ability; to each according to his needs. We recited that, three times, after dessert. It was from the Bible, or so they said. St. Paul again, in Acts.

“You are a transitional generation, said Aunt Lydia. It is the hardest for you. We know the sacrifices you are being expected to make. It is hard when men revile you. For the ones who come after you, it will be easier. They will accept their duties with willing hearts.

“She did not say: Because they will have no memories, of any other way.

“She said: Because they won’t want things they can’t have.”

Page 127

This next segment exhibits Atwood’s lovely writing style, this time describing what it would be like living in such a repressive and seemingly utterly joyless society.

“The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tractile; if I leaned against them they’d be warm and yielding. It’s amazing what denial can do. Did the sight of my ankle make him lightheaded, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what’s handy.

“Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I’m a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness. (Emphasis added.)”

Page 161–162

And here, further on, we have Selena Joy interacting with Offred. Selena wants a child—badly. She is convinced that her Commander will not be able to impregnate Offred, so she wants her to sleep with Nick, the help. In exchange for taking this risk, she offers to get a picture of the child that was stolen from Offred when she was kidnapped into servitude. This is twisted nearly beyond comprehension: Joy is seemingly unaware of the depravity of the cruel power that she exerts over Offred—she just benefits from it as if it’s her birthright.

She leans forward. “Maybe I could get something for your,” she says. Because I have been good. “Something you want,” she adds, wheedling almost.

“What’s that?” I say. I can’t think of anything I truly want that she’d be likely or able to give me.

“A picture,” she says, as if offering me some juvenile treat, an ice cream, a trip to the zoo. I look up at her again, puzzled.

“Of her,” she says. “Your little girl. But only maybe.”

Page 216

And, finally, the Commander opens up to Offred, literally begging her to put a female stamp of approval on all that men have done for women, in the form of the highly patriarchal society in which the Commander has ended up basically owning Offred. Again, this is bizarre, twisted and hard to wrap your head around. He couches the societal transformation as a necessary rescue for men, because they were suffering so badly in the previous, slightly less-rigid patriarchy.

This passage—as with so many others in this book—could stand alone as a one-page short story.

“You know what [men] were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage.

“Do they feel now? I say.

“Yes, he says, looking at me. They do. He stands up, comes around the desk to the chair where I’m sitting. He puts his hands on my shoulders, from behind. I can’t see him.

“I like to know what you think, his voice says, from behind me.

“I don’t think a lot, I say lightly. What he wants is intimacy, but I can’t give him that.

“There’s hardly any point in my thinking, is there? I say. What I think doesn’t matter.

“Which is the only reason he can tell me things.

“Come now, he says, pressing a little with his hands. I’m interested in your opinion. You’re intelligent enough, you must have an opinion.

“About what? I say.

“What we’ve done, he says. How things have worked out.

“I hold myself very still. I try to empty my mind. I think about the sky, at night, when there’s no moon. I have no opinion, I say.

“He sighs, relaxes his hands, but leaves them on my shoulders. He knows what I think, all right.

“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.

“Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some. (Emphasis added.)”

Page 221–222

The commander continues in this vein, calling on capital-N Nature for justification for the less-fair but super-awesome society of Gilead.

"It means you can’t cheat Nature,“ he says. “Nature demands variety, for men. It stands to reason, it’s part of the procreational strategy. It’s Nature’s plan.” I don’t say anything, so he goes on. “Women know that instinctively. Why did they buy so many different clothes, in the old days? To trick the men into thinking they were several different women. A new one each day.”

He say this as if he believes it, but he says many things that way. Maybe he believes it, maybe he doesn’t, or maybe he does both at the same time. Impossible to tell what he believes.

“So now that we don’t have different clothes,” I say, “you merely have different women.” This is irony, but he doesn’t acknowledge it.

“It solves a lot of problems,” he says, without a twitch. (Emphasis added.)

Page 249

The epilogue is of a discussion in the even-further future, where society has once again regained its senses and Gilead is just a long-past and bizarre blip on the bumpy road to the here-and-now.

“We held out no hope of tracing the narrator herself directly. It was clear from internal evidence that she was among the first wave of women recruited for reproductive purposes and allotted to those who both required such services and could lay claim to them through their position in the elite. The regime created an instant pool of such women by the simple tactic of declaring all second marriages and non-marital liaisons adulterous, arresting the female partners, and, on the grounds that they were morally unfit, confiscating the children they already had, who were adopted by childless couples of the upper echelons who were eager for progeny by any means. (in the middle period, this policy was extended to cover all marriages not contracted within the state church.) Men highly placed in the regime were thus able to pick and choose among women who had demonstrated their reproductive fitness by having produced one or more healthy children, a desirable characteristic in an age of plummeting Caucasian birth rates, a phenomenon observable not only in Gilead but in most northern Caucasian societies of the time.”
Page 316

This clinical summary is much more palatable than the autobiography that preceded it. It is easy to view past massive injustices in this light—Atwood juxtaposes the scientific attitude of the historians to the story that preceded it, in which the horror of having subjugated an entire gender was palpable. Without context, we easily consume stories of unspeakable atrocity in the past. Perhaps that is the only way to do so, and be able to move forward with any hope that we won’t just repeat ourselves.

[1] While some may argue that the U.S. is hardly a religious society, that is just not true. It’s just…well-masked…but there are rules about who is allowed to succeed and who is not. Can you imagine a Jewish or Muslim president? How about an atheist? While some of us can imagine this, there is no way that it could happen in anything approaching the near future. Religion plays a big role in women’s lives—the “debate” about abortion is only a debate in the U.S. and other theocracies—or in the moral strictures about self-control and drug use or the vindictive use of jail as punishment. The list goes on and on. The U.S. is a religious society, through and through, though it masks itself with the sheen of quasi-democracy and lip service to freedom for all.
[2] She is unnamed, except as “Offred”, which is the possessive “of” followed by the name of the Commander to which she’s currently assigned as a broodmare

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (read in 2015)

Published by marco on in Art, Film & Literature

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is the story of Big Chief and McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The Big Chief is a long-time resident of the mental institution run by Head Nurse Ratched; McMurphy arrives as a transferee from a work camp who thinks he’s going to have an easier ride in the home. This is true, at least at first. He is a breath of fresh air for the other inmates there, a force of nature, as it were. He chafes and takes liberties and cracks wise and runs card games and generally doesn’t follow the rules. He tries to help free the others from their artificial, psychological fetters. He takes them on a fishing trip. He sneaks ladies and booze into the building late at night. He tries to help poor Billy. Ratched thwarts him every step of the way. The Big Chief narrates, grows and learns. McMurphy sacrifices the last of what he has in a futile act of revenge, though he is aware of what is happening. The Big Chief makes an actual escape. Surprisingly well-written—I didn’t expect such poetic prose from Kesey—and deep. Recommended.


On the subject of poetic prose, here’s our first look at the resident intellectual, Harding.

“Harding is a flat, nervous man with a face that sometimes makes you think you seen him in the movies, like it’s a face too pretty to just be a guy on the street. He’s got wide, thin shoulders and he curves them in around his chest when he’s trying to hide inside himself. He’s got hands so long and white and dainty I think they carved each other out of soap, and sometimes they get loose and glide around in front of him free as two white birds until he noticed them and traps them between his knees; it bothers him that he’s got pretty hands.”
Page 19

How do we know that Harding is an intellectual? Well, just listen to how he talks, all highfalutin’ and such. Here he laments a supposed matriarchy, which while true for him, is a fiction he is capable of maintaining only because of his own personal situation. He is oppressed by his wife, who he is too weak to look at on eye-level and, after voluntarily committing himself, finds himself subject to the rule of Nurse Ratched. This does not a matriarchy make, though. It’s a nicely written speech, but the content is a bit amiss, whether because of Harding’s misconceptions or the author’s, I’m not sure. It smacks of the terror a man has every time women start to exert just a little bit of control, that little bit not even close to commensurate with the proportion of society that they comprise.

"Ah, I believe my friend is catching on, fellow rabbits. Tell me, Mr. McMurphy, how does one go about showing a woman who’s boss, I mean other than laughing at her? How does he show her who’s king of the mountain? A man like you should be able to tell us that. You don’t slap her around, do you? No, then she calls the law. You don’t lose your temper and shout at her; she’ll win by a trying to placate her big ol’ angry boy: ‘Is us wittle man getting fussy? Ahhhhh?’ Have you ever tried to keep up a noble and angry front in the face of such consolation? So you see, my friend, it is somewhat as you stated: man has but one truly effective weapon against the juggernaut of modern matriarchy, but it certainly is not laughter. One weapon, and with every passing year in this hip, motivationally researched society, more and more people are discovering how to render that weapon useless and conquer those who have hitherto been the conquerors—”

“Lord, Harding, but you do come on,” McMurphy says.

“—and do you think, for acclaimed pychopathic powers, that you could effectively use your weapon against our champion? Do you think you could use it against Miss Ratched, McMurphy? Ever?”

Page 63–64

The next passage is a nice reminder of what life is like for those for whom life streams along much too quickly to really and truly grasp. While we, possessed as many of us are with more-than-adequate intellect, sometimes feel overwhelmed and tired by the demands of the quotidian, how do you think it feels for poor old Pete and his friends?

“There’s old Pete, face like a searchlight. He’s fifty yards off to my left, but I can see him plain as though there wasn’t any fog at all. Or maybe he’s up right close and real small, I can’t be sure. He tells me once about how tired he is, and just his saying it makes me see his whole life on the railroad, see him working to figure out how to read a watch, breaking a sweat while he tries to get the right button in the right hole of his railroad overalls, doing his absolute damnedest to keep up with a job that comes so easy to the others they can sit back in a chair padded with cardboard and read mystery stories and girlie books. Not that he ever really figured to keep up—he knew from the start he couldn’t do that—but he had to try to keep up, just to keep them in sight. So for forty years he was able to live, if not right in the world of men, at least on the edge of it.”
Page 117–118

And here, Kesey writes of the revolution’s great enemy: the enervation of constant struggle leading to apathy, to caginess, to pacing oneself. The white-hot nova of revolution realizes it’s going to expend itself uselessly on a small corner of the beast and pulls back…back into itself, to reconsider, to bide its time, to be in it for the long haul. It’s quite possibly the right thing to do—after all, why sacrifice the best, most experienced troops in a gesture?—but no war was ever won without sacrifice.

“But me, I know why. I heard him talk to the lifeguard. He’s finally getting cagey, is all. The way Papa finally did when he came to realize that he couldn’t beat that group from town who wanted the government to put in the dam because of the money and the work it would bring, and because it would get rid of the village: Let that tribe of fish Injuns take their sink and their two hundred thousand dollars the government is paying them and go some place else with it! Papa had done the smart thing signing the papers; there wasn’t anything to gain by bucking it. The government would of got it anyhow, sooner or later; this way the tribe would get paid good. It was the smart thing. McMurphy was doing the smart thing. I would see that. He was giving in because it was the smartest thing to do, not because of any of these other reasons the Acutes were making up. He didn’t say so, but I knew and I told myself it was the smart thing to do. i told myself that over and over: It’s safe. Like hiding. it’s the smart thing to do nobody could say and different. I know what he’s doing.”
Page 150

This is a scene from the fishing trip, a tumult of activity told in long, clause-filled sentences that quickly resolve the scene with a remarkably sharp clarity. Again, the chief examines this force of nature that names itself McMurphy, analyzes his ways of dealing with the deadly grasp that society places at their throats. He deals with it by laughing in its face, by deliberately not acknowledging its power, and to hell with the consequences, because nothing could be worse than submission to this soft, cozening domination by something lesser.

“This scramble of action holds for a space, a second there on the sea—the men yammering and struggling and cussing and trying to tend their poles while watching the girl; the bleeding, crashing battle between Scanlon and my fish at everybody’s feet; the lines all tangled and shooting every which way with the doctor’s glasses-on-a-string tangled and dangling from one line ten feet off the back of the boat, fish striking at the flash of the lens, and the girl cussing for all she’s worth and looking now at her bare breasts, one white and one smarting red—and George takes his eye off where he’s going and runs the boat into that log and kills the engine.

“While McMurphy laughs. Rocking farther and farther backward against the cabin top, spreading his laugh out across the water—laughing at the girl, at the guys, at George, at me sucking my bleeding thumb, at the captain back at the pier and the bicycle rider and the service-station guys and the give thousand houses and the Big Nurse and all of it. Because he knows you have to laugh at the things that hurt you just to keep yourself in balance, just to keep the world from running you plumb crazy. He knows there’s a painful side; he knows my thumb smarts and his girl field has a bruised breast and the doctor is losing his glasses, but he won’t let the pain blot out the humor no more’n he’ll let the humor blot out the pain.”

Page 214

And, finally, McMurphy’s nova comes at last, with his denouement serving as cradle for the Chief’s rebirth.

“I looked at McMurphy out of the corner of my eye, trying not to be obvious about it. He was in his chair in the corner, resting a second before he came out for the next round—in a long line of next rounds. The thing he was fighting, you couldn’t whip it for good. All you could do was keep on whipping it, till you couldn’t come out any more and somebody else had to take your place.”
Page 273

And, after Billy Bibbitt was discovered in the doctor’s office with his throat cut by his own hand, not because of what McMurphy had helped him do—eat, drink, lay with a whore, be merry—but because of the guilt that Ratched had instantly instilled upon him for having partaken.

“She walked straight to McMurphy.

““He cut his throat,” she said. She waited, hoping he would say something. He wouldn’t look up. “He opened the doctor’s desk and found some instruments and cut his throat. The poor miserable, misunderstood boy killed himself. He’s there now, in the doctor’s chair, with his throat cut.”

“She waited again. But he still wouldn’t look up.

““First Charles Cheswick and now William Bibbit! I hope you’re finally satisfied. Playing with human lives—gambling with human lives—as if you thought yourself to be a God!”

“She turned and walked into the Nurses’ Station and closed the door behind her, leaving a shrill, killing-cold sound ringing in the tubes of light over our heads.

“First I had a quick thought to try to stop him, talk him into taking what he’d already won and let her have the last round, but another, bigger thought wiped the first thought away completely. I suddenly realized with a crystal certainty that neither I nor any of the half-score of us could stop him. […]

“We couldn’t stop him because we were the ones making him do it. It wasn’t the nurse that was forcing him, it was our need that was making him push himself slowly up from sitting, his big hands driving down on the leather chair arms, pushing him up, rising and standing like one of those moving-picture zombies, obeying orders beamed at him from forty masters. It was us that had been making him go on for weeks, keeping him standing long after his feet and legs had given out, weeks of making him wink and grin and laugh and go on with his act long after his humor had been parched dry between two electrodes.

“We made him stand and hitch up his black shorts like they were horsehide chaps, and push back his cap with one finger like it was a ten-gallon Stetson, slow, mechanical gestures—and when he walked across the floor you could hear the iron in his bare heels ring sparks out of the tile.

“Only at the last—after he’d smashed through that glass door, her face swinging around, with terror forever ruining any other look she might ever try to use again, screaming when he grabbed for her and ripped her uniform all the way down the front, screaming again when the two nippled circles started from her chest and swelled out and out, bigger than anybody had ever even imagined, warm and pink in the light—only at the last, after the officials realized that the three black boys weren’t going to do anything but stand and watch and they would have to beat him off without their help, doctors and supervisors and nurses prying those heavy red fingers out of the white flesh of her throat as if they were her neck bones, jerking him backward off of her with a loud heave of breath, only then did he show any sign that he might be anything other than a sane, willful, dogged man performing a hard duty that finally just had to be done, like it or not.

“He gave a cry. At the last, falling backward, his face appearing to us for a second upside down before he was smothered on the floor by a pile of white uniforms, he let himself cry out:

“A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn’t care any more about anything but himself and his dying. (Emphasis added.)”


The Big Chief realizes that McMurphy wasn’t a nova of his own at all, but rather a vessel, a lens, through which the remaining power of the other inmates was focused. He knew what he was there for, he regretted the lost years of a possible future that would never come, but knew that he’d had more life than all of the others put together and was willing to sacrifice himself if only they would just. Wake. Up.