The Dim-Post

April 15, 2014

On what really annoyed me about ‘The Goldfinch’

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 12:07 pm

Donna Tartt’s new book won the Pulitzer Prize today. Lots of people loved this book – and if you’re into beautiful prose there is a lot to love. But the story-telling really bugged me, and the event of it winning a major literary award seemed like a good time to whine about it. (Warning: contains spoilers that spoil the entire plot).

First let me talk about great story-telling. There’s a scene I love in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It’s in the first third: John Travolta and Uma Thurman have just finished their date, won their dance contest and gone back to Uma’s place where they share a romantic moment. Then John Travolta goes into the bathroom.

Because we’ve all seen a thousand genre movies the audience thinks they know what’s about to happen. Travolta will come out of the bathroom and he and Uma will have sex. Travolta and Thurman will fall in love. Thurman’s boss, a vicious, jealous crime lord will find out, and the rest of the movie will be about how this drama plays itself out, presumably involving the mysterious glowing contents of the suitcase we saw at the beginning of the movie. Everything that’s happened in the movie so-far seems to have set up this narrative.

But all the audience’s expectations are completely wrong. Instead Thurman helps herself to drugs she find’s in Travolta’s jacket, overdoses and Travolta takes her to his drug-dealers house and injects her heart with adrenaline. One of the reasons this scene plays out so well is that we’re off the road-map. The viewer has no idea what’s going to happen. And all of this – the drugs, the drug dealer etc – has also been set up previously in the movie, but done so slyly that we never suspected they were plot devices.

Tartt tries to do something similar in The Goldfinch. The main character Theo has stolen a priceless painting and hidden it in a storage facility, and we assume that the book will be about him escaping the police and the other unsavory characters who want to take it off him. But two-thirds of the way through the book we find out that Theo does not, in fact, have his stolen painting hidden in a secure storage facility. It was stolen by his friend Boris years ago and went missing in a drug deal. But instead of putting all the clues out there and just letting the reader form their own false conclusions, Tartt tricks us: both of the main characters act totally against character in order to set up her big dramatic reveal. Theo tells the reader he never told anyone about the painting – turns out he did but was drunk so he forgot. Boris took the painting and can’t really explain why, in a way that made it look like it was still in Theo’s possession and can’t really explain why, and didn’t give it back when Theo left and can’t really explain why, and Theo never once actually looked at his priceless painting for eight(?) years. None of that makes any sense. And I think Tartt knows that, because she does quite a bit of hard work trying to justify, say, Theo never once looking at his painting; the plot of the book picks up quickly at that point and she introduces sinister gangsters and other interesting distractions.

(The Goldfinch also falls down awfully at the end, I think – Theo spends about eighty pages in a hotel drinking and vomiting while Boris runs around and ties up all the plot problems. But at least that’s a legitimate choice Tartt made about how to tell her story instead of a scam she runs on the reader.)

Tartt references Dostoevsky a lot in this book and all the critics praise it as ‘Dickensian’ but I think the main influence was Patricia Highsmith. Disturbed protagonist, art; forgery. Psychological thriller. But Highsmith lets her characters drive the story. Tartt’s characters seem to drink and act erratically because that lets the writer get away with plot developments that wouldn’t make sense if the characters were rational.  Aspiring writers like myself always get lectured about having our characters ‘make choices’ because that ‘defines character’. I’m not sure the main character in this Pulitzer Prize winner makes a single meaningful choice in the entire book.

I went to the Northern Club once. Really classy toilets.

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 6:54 am

Via the Dom-Post:

Prime Minister John Key says there is nothing unethical or inappropriate about charging guests at a Maori Party dinner $5000 a head to sit with him for part of the evening

It has been reported that 15 Maori leaders were charged $5000 a head to attend a dinner with Key at Auckland’s exclusive Northern Club. Maori TV’s Native Affairs is screening footage of the event this evening.

Guests were reportedly promised face time with Key. Key’s office this evening did not deny that, but said there was nothing inappropriate or unethical about the practice.

Part of the deal was that Key would change his seat often throughout the evening so everyone had a chance to talk to him “confidentially”.

To me the significance of this fundraiser is that National has four preferred coalition partners who they’d like to go into government with instead of doing a deal with Winston Peters. ACT, United Future, the Conservative Party and the Maori Party.

Now, those first three parties will rely on National giving them an electorate seat. And now the Maori Party is reliant on National to raise money for them so they can afford to campaign, because they can’t attract funding by themselves.

April 13, 2014

Winston is actually a really sweet guy. You just don’t know him like the Labour Party does

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 7:27 am

Matthew Hooton writes in the NBR:

For two years, the average of polls has shown that if Winston Peters’ NZ First misses out on 5%, Mr Key will be re-elected. If NZ First gets to 5%, Mr Peters chooses the prime minister.

Increasingly, Mr Peters is tilting toward Labour.

While John Armstrong writes that Labour’s positioning with the Greens is dictated by their relationship with New Zealand First:

Key likes to wind Peters up; Cunliffe risks looking like he is being cowered by the veteran politician.

Labour’s pursuit of power dictates, however, that Labour be hostage to Peters for the next five months despite knowing such obedience will not make even the tiniest bit of difference as to whether he ultimately favours the centre-right or centre-left.

And Martyn Bradbury also comments on this dynamic:

Cunliffe can only become PM by unifying the opposition and the Greens are a major part of that opposition and right now they need to be working out how best to approach Winston so that they can uphold their side of the responsibilities of being such a major part of that opposition.

There is a Government in waiting, Cunliffe has identified it, now the leaders of the opposition have to lead and forge dialogue between one another or John Key gets a third term and we all end up sitting on our hands for another 3 years.

It’s conventional wisdom among political pundits that Winston Peters is impossible to predict. ‘He’s too wily! You never know which way Winston’s gonna go!’ But Peters political strategy is actually orthodox and entirely predictable.

Consider the 1996 election campaign. Peters campaigned against the incumbent National government and indicated that he would go into coalition with Labour and ‘keep them honest’. After the election he formed a coalition with National and became Bolger’s Finance Minister and Deputy PM. In 2005 when Peters was again in the position of kingmaker he campaigned against the Clark Labour government and promised his voters that he would not form a coalition with either Labour or National because ‘he did not seek the baubles of power’. After the election he went into coalition with Labour negotiating a position as Clark’s Foreign Minister.

Nothing Peters says prior to the election has any bearing on what he’ll do after the election. All statements made before the election are about maximising his vote. Nothing more. After the election he’ll seek whatever outcome benefits him personally. If anyone questions him about his pre-election promises he’ll roar with fury that he never said any such thing.

So if Peters is moving closer to Labour that doesn’t mean he’s favoring a coalition with Labour. It doesn’t mean he wants to get rid of John Key. It doesn’t – as poor old Bomber thinks – mean that Winston is ‘uniting behind David Cunliffe as the leader of the left’. What it means is that Peters thinks there’s votes there, and as usual when it comes to political strategy Winston Peters is right. He’s picked up about 50,000 votes off Labour in the last few months.

Obviously Peters needs to be able to pretend he’ll go into coalition with Labour – that strengthens his bargaining power with National. But Peters will want a stable government that can guarantee him his knighthood and posting to either London or Washington at the end of it all, and no hybrid of Cunliffe-led Labour-NZ First-Greens government will deliver that to him.

April 12, 2014

An accumulation of nameless energies

Filed under: books,general idiocy — danylmc @ 7:23 pm

This Herald piece by John Roughan about waiting to see the royals drive by:

We waited only 15 minutes past the scheduled time of arrival, 45 in total, a millisecond in royalist time.

Then, noise and fluttering flags down Jellicoe St said they were coming. First came police bikes, then a police car, another, followed by a real car. Could that be it? Hard to see through tinted windows. No.

The next Crown limo was the one. She was on our side of the car and not just waving, leaning forward, looking happy to see us all, really waving, genuinely smiling.

The cars had not stopped. She passed in a second. We would have seen far more on television but there is something about the briefest glimpse of real life that you never forget.

Reminded me of a famous passage from Delillo’s White Noise: 

We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”

Another silence ensued.

“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.

 

 

April 11, 2014

Hypothesis o’ the day

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 10:12 am

Lots of debate around the blogosphere about whether Labour’s refusal to campaign alongside the Greens was a good or bad idea. I think bad, but obviously don’t know for sure.

I have been forming a hypothesis though, based on poll movement in the first few months of this election year. I think that voters might respond to signals about coalition partners, far moreso than they seem to respond to scandals or policy announcements. When Key announced that he wasn’t ruling out Winston Peters back in January, National dipped a bit and Peters shot up. (It is hard to see National’s dip in retrospect because they were picking up voters from Labour around the same time). Likewise when Labour indicated a preference for New Zealand First over the Greens, Labour dipped and Peters went up more.

This might all be a meaningless coincidence but it is testable: if the polls over the next few weeks see large shifts in support for the Greens – either up or down - with inverse impact on Labour’s ratings then we’ll (a) know if Labour made the right decision re a pre-election deal but (b) more importantly, see whether my theory stacks up or not.

April 10, 2014

Jaw-dropping risk of the day

Filed under: Politics,polls — danylmc @ 12:10 pm

The Herald carries the details of the Greens attempt to form a more formal coalition with Labour:

Labour yesterday rebuffed a proposal by the Green Party to present both parties as a coalition Government in waiting during in the run-up to the September 20 election.

Labour leader David Cunliffe indicated that such a pre-election arrangement could have posed problems with post-election negotiations with other parties, such as New Zealand First.

Which might not seem like a big deal. But if you look at what’s happening in the polls over the last few months you see a pretty consistent pattern. Labour are losing votes to National and New Zealand First. But they aren’t losing any votes to the Greens.

nzpolls20140410Now there could be a bunch of reasons for that but my guess is that most Labour voters who are sympathetic to the Greens – and according to the Colmar Brunton poll that’s about 70% of Labour voters – don’t feel the need to switch because ever since the NZPower launch there’s been a kind-of-consensus that a vote for Labour is a vote for a Labour-Greens coalition. Labour’s announcement that this isn’t the case and that a vote for Labour could also be a vote for a Labour-New Zealand First coalition seems like a big risk. I can see why they took it: they want to win back those votes from National and think its going to be tough to do when they’re in a formal alliance with the Green Party. But I’d also note that Labour’s high-point during this electoral cycle came after the NZPower Labour-Greens co-announcement back in 2013, suggesting that center voters are less repulsed by the idea of a coalition than Labour’s caucus are.

Vox summary of Pikkety’s Capital

Filed under: economics — danylmc @ 9:10 am

I’ve asked my university library to order in a copy. It’s not here yet but the basic argument seems very simple. Matthew Yglesias writes:

The main concepts Piketty introduces are the wealth-to-income ratio and the comparison of the rate of return on capital (“r” in his book) to the rate of nominal economic growth (“g”). A country’s wealth:income ratio is simply the value of all the financial assets owned by its citizens against the country’s gross domestic product. Piketty’s big empirical achievement is constructing time series data about wealth:income ratios for different countries over the long term.

R is a more abstract idea. If you invest $100 in some enterprise and it returns you $7 a year in income then your rate of return is 7%. Piketty’s “r” is the rate of return on all outstanding investments. A key contention of the book is that r is about 5 percent on average at all times. The growth rate (“g”) that matters is the overall rate of economic growth. That means that if g is less than 5 percent, the wealth of the already-wealthy will grow faster than the economy as a whole. G has, in fact, been below 5 percent in recent decades and Piketty expects that trend to continue. Because r > g, the rich will get richer.

Let’s assume that Piketty is correct and he’s discovered something deep and important about the nature of capitalism. That’s a really big deal, and Pikkety’s work looks like it’ll be a landmark in its field.

Now, obviously I’m not an economist, but from a layman’s point of view this doesn’t seem like this is a very difficult or opaque idea. Pikkety looked at the historic data and noticed a trend. It’s not like, say, Heisenberg’s work on quantum theory – which was so counter-intuitive and nonsensical even subsequent Nobel Prize winners are baffled as to how and why he developed his ideas, but which happened to be correct and revolutionised physics. It’s a little disturbing that after two hundred years of capitalism we’re only now discovering critically important but fairly simple insights into how it works.

April 9, 2014

Furthermore . . .

Filed under: Politics — danylmc @ 9:06 am

Via the Dom-Post today:

Wellington is home to more public servants than at any time since at least 2000 – and the capital has the greatest share of the bureaucracy since National took office in 2008.

Although National pledged and then made efforts to reduce “core” public servants in favour of “frontline” workers, the number of fulltime public servants based in Wellington rose by more than 900 in the year to June 30, 2013, to 18,493.

It is the largest number since at least 2000, and probably since major state service reforms of the 1980s.

Figures from the State Services Commission show that the number of public servants grew by 1155 to 44,500 in the year to June 30, with the vast majority of new positions in Wellington.

Now I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Modern states are complicated and you need a lot of people to run them properly. But it is kind of surprising since National spent their entire time in opposition screaming and clawing at their eyes about the number of public servants, and dour, prudent Bill English spent his last six years in government with a serious expression on his face explaining that he was being sensible and getting tough and cracking down on the public service who needed to tighten their belts and do more with less and actually that was all just bullshit too.

The other point I’d add to my previous post is that it kind of surprised me to learn that National had borrowed $50 billion. I knew it was a lot but didn’t know the exact number. And I’m pretty sure that if a Labour government had borrowed $50 billion dollars I’d have known all about it, because Key and English would have been on TV every night for the past four months bellowing about Labour destroying our economy and dooming generations of unborn kiwi children to slavery by borrowing $50 billion dollars, while the Herald and NBR would all be publishing their print editions in red ink to symbolise Labour’s irresponsible debt and the life-blood of the country that they’d gutted with their insane borrowing. Instead its just cicadas chirping and the only mention of the figure that I’ve seen was a Green MP’s twitter feed.

April 8, 2014

Politics, lies and the Economy

Filed under: economics,Politics — danylmc @ 1:20 pm

From Russel Norman’s twitter feed:

money

Does borrowing fifty billion dollars over the last six years mean the Nats are bad with money? I don’t think so. We had an external shock in 2008 (the GFC) and then a massive earthquake, both of which had a huge negative impact on our economy. Interest rates for the government to borrow on the international markets were super-low during this time, so borrowing money was actually a really smart thing to do. We probably should have borrowed more and invested it in infrastructure instead of selling our energy companies and frittering money away on National’s tax switch, which cost billions and totally failed to stimulate the economy.

And I suspect Russel Norman would agree with that. What Russel is responding to here is the massive gap between National’s economic rhetoric and the stuff it actually quietly does. Yes, John Key and his Finance Minister Bill English have borrowed $50 billion dollars from overseas investors over the last six years. But John Key and Finance Minister Bill English have also spent the last six years roaring with horror at the economic plans of Labour and the Greens who want to BORROW MONEY from OVERSEAS INVESTORS! That’s why asset sales are so important, according to English – it’s the prudent, sensible alternative to BORROWING MONEY from OVERSEAS INVESTORS which will wreck the economy, except for the $50 billion he borrowed which was FISCAL and PRUDENT.

Likewise government spending. Interest rates went up recently and the Governor of the RBNZ has forecast more rises over the next two years, so we’ve heard some very stern warnings from English and Key about how the policies of Labour and the Greens will CAUSE INTEREST RATES TO GO UP! We’ve also heard a lot of dire warnings from Bill English about GOVERNMENT SPENDING. So here, via Treasury, is English’s record of government spending over his tenure as Finance Minister:

hyfu

Again, having the government spend money during an economic down-turn and period of national crisis is a good thing to do. You just don’t get to do it while simultaneously thundering about how the opposition parties want to spend money, which will destroy the economy. Or rather, National does for some reason.

The point I’m trying to make here is that almost every statement Key and the Finance Minister make about the economy is nonsense, pure disinformation dipped in hypocrisy, sprayed with drivel and then airbrushed dry with horrible fucking lies. That’s not part of the conventional wisdom though, especially among political commentators who all have Bill English as a straight-talking dour, fiscal, prudent conservative instead of a big-spending, big-borrowing outrageously dishonest hypocrite who vomits out floods of obvious lies every time he opens his mouth.

It’s a big problem for the opposition. In macro terms National has done pretty-much what Labour and the Greens would have done – with some obvious exceptions like the tax cuts – but pretended that they’ve done the opposite, and warned the country that Labour and the Greens are going to introduce fiscal policies which are basically identical to National’s but which National warns will destroy the economy. It’s all such a gigantic, egregious yet successful lie that countering it is all but impossible.

April 7, 2014

Ball

Filed under: art — danylmc @ 1:26 pm

The Young Nats had their ball in the weekend. The photostream of the event is here. Social Development Minister Paula Bennett was in attendence, along with the PM and the Justice Minister, but I mentioned Bennett first because:

BklCkTECAAA4JWf

Hence:

And:

 

BklMv2OCAAAwTu8

Via Lyndon Hood

Keep ‘em coming and I’ll keep posting them.

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