We saw the Pushkin Theatre’s presentation of ‘Measure for Measure’ in Russian at the Sydney Festival. As homework, this inveterate student read the Folger Institute’s online version the morning before attending the evening performance. It helped a lot, having the major events and speeches in mind. The play had surtitles, which were easy to read, accurate to the play (as I recalled it from that morning’s reading), and also quick to keep pace with the action. Because I knew the play, I did not need to read every word of the surtitles, ignoring the players, to follow the action.

Originally classed as a comedy, ‘Measure for Measure’ is now canonised as a problem play. It is certainly serious as it touches on torture, rape, tyranny, hypocrisy, capital punishment, execution, and other problems that remain with us.

The Duke is tired of the responsibilities of office and curious to see what happens without him; off he goes on vacation, leaving Angelo in charge. Angelo is far more strict that the Duke, and becomes a scourge for Vienna. However, he is tempted to carnal knowledge by the beautiful and chaste Isabella. He will free her brother from prison and a death sentence if she will bed him. Her brother is guilty, by the way, of very same carnal knowledge of Juliet. The comic relief is provided by Lucio, a hanger on. There follow tricks and ruses in which everyone gets what they want, except Angelo, though he comes out of it pretty well. Most summaries refer to him as corrupt, and maybe he became corrupted, but he has a crisis of conscience at the beginning. He is no cardboard figure.

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One might say the greater villain, if villain there must be, is the Duke himself who contrived the whole thing as an entertainment for his jaded eye. He manipulated the whole situation, and plays on the characters in Acts IV and V like puppets. At the end Lucio is sent to be hanged for slandering the Duke, whereas in this performance, which has edited the play down to 110 minutes, he is sent to be whipped.

The play is indeed the thing. The production was marvellous. Full of energy and light. It ran straight through with no interval which sustained the momentum and energy. An excellent approach. Changes of scene were marked by a swirl of the characters around the stage leaving upstage those in the next scene while the others retired to the position of a chorus looking on and occasionally reacting. The actors were on stage for the duration. Costume changes were effected behind the stage props, four red block that turned out to be….

We particularly like the first dance sequence between a blindfolded Angelo and Maria as Isabella. The bass playing makes sense after a few minutes.

There is a trailer on You Tube at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59-k2y-IUsQ
There are also some interviews with the producers and actors discussing the themes in the play.

It surely took some courage to include a Russian language production in a large theatre in the Sydney Festival. There must have been wise heads demurring all along the way. Too risky. Too outré. Too complicated. Too hard. Too…… too. No doubt I would have been one of them. Wrong. Chapeaux!

How easy it all was. I could command to the iPad screen the authoritative text of the play when I chose to do so. No trip to the library or bookstore to find all the copies gone. I printed the tickets at home so no queuing up. The surtitles worked perfectly to bridge the language barrier.

Moreover, we drove into the Rocks, parked at the front door of the theatre, ate a good dinner a few doors down the street, and walked back to the theatre for the show. To go home, it took fifteen minutes from leaving the theatre to entering the house. For that evening Sydney was like small town. The more so since we saw some people we know in the crowd.

The book is an elegant and languid meditation on the city of Venice, the one in Italy not the one in California. It tells the story of Venice through thematic chapters rather than a sequential history. The chapters run ten to twelve pages, easily digestible in a sitting, and the segues from one to another and within each are smooth as the surface of a pond on a still day. Without a doubt the man can write. The book is replete with watery images, metaphors, comparisons, similes, and tropes. I felt moist reading it at times.

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A sample of the chapters includes; Origins, Trade, Refuge, Stones, Chronicles, Secrets,…..

Leaving aside a myriad of details, the heart of Venice was and is trade. It made itself an entrepôt for more than a thousand years. Having no wealthy terra firma, having no mineral riches, having no vast population, it lived by wit, barter and trade. It became the European end of the Silk Road. The merchants Shylock funded sailed into the Black Sea and along the Levant coast to bring back to Venice the luxuries of the East and sold them in trade fairs in Venice. The first Venetian carnivals were commercial expositions.

During its long ascendancy, when violent change was the norm in other polities, precipitated from within by ambitions or ideologies or from without by invasion, Venice remained stable. The city lived with the constant threat alta aqua, which made Venetians pull together, however much they grumbled, like no others at the time. Until Napoleon in 1804 joined it to the Italian kingdom he created for his brother it had stood apart from one and from all. Having no choice Venice reluctantly and slowly became a part of Italy. Earlier when Niccolò Machiavelli rhapsodised of a future Donna Italia he did not include Venice in it, and in this he was not alone seeing it as an enemy of Italy, not a part of it.

In Venice the commercial imperative reduced everything to a contract, and copious records were kept which miraculously survived despite many catastrophes natural and human that often destroy the past. Ackroyd has immersed himself in the dry and dusty ledgers when not walking the campi and picked out some very apposite instances for the reader.

Venetians were traders for whom the sea was the highway. They bought cheap and sold dear and on the margin prospered. Though the merchants were private businesses, their activities were supported, encouraged, promoted, and taxed by the commune as a whole. To specify, the ships were built and owned by the commune and rented to merchants complete with crews. There is a parallel here to George Pullman and his famous railway cars, which are treated in another review on this blog.

Because of the historical and ever-present threat of the water the communal spirt ran deep, and lasted longer even in the age of Enlightenment individualism. In Venice the whole comes before the one. Else everyone drowns. The comparisons to Amsterdam are many.

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Like many others he is impressed by the Venetian drive for order and regulation, the more so in the face of repeated Venetian corruption, extortion, embezzlement, and fraud. Shylock was the least of the problem for most merchants of Venice. Ackroyd is absolutely deadpan in the chapter called ‘Merchants of Venice’ in which he does not mention William Shakespeare and his Venetian play. If he did, I blinked. Earlier he does mention Venice’s most famous literary tourist, Gustav von Aschenbach from Thomas Mann’s mediation on life and death ... in Venice.

Everything was put down on paper, moreover, everything was kept totally secret. There is the paradox, everything was recorded, included the energetic informing on each other that kept the authorities busy processing, but nothing was said. Ackroyd cites some remarkable examples of the ability of Venetians to keep secrets. They make all those Stasi agents in the Deutsche Demokratische Republic (DDR) look like blabbermouths. There are many, and to this reader, surprising comparisons to be made between the DDR and Venice in matters of secrecy, security, and surveillance and the high cost of such social control.

In the case of Venice the campi — the residential squares — made surveillance unavoidable even for those few who were not interested in spying on their neighbours, and easy for the great many others who were interested. One result is the hidden doors of many houses, so placed to avoid prying eyes. Another result was the mask and cape.

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Yes, there is a ‘but’ coming. The book is all trip and no arrival. Though each theme is treated clearly and simply, this reader lost impetus. Without a sequence of events the reader has no characters upon whom to focus or chain of events to follow. Of course, the author's choice to do that puts all the focus on the city of Venice and Ackroyd’s considerable powers of persuasion, and it kept me reading.

‘Doge’ is a dialect corruption of ‘duke’ and they come and go but none move the story on. Doges were invariably elevated at an advanced age, say seventy-two, and some then continued for another twenty years. There was an unbroken line of one hundred and twenty doges until Napoleon brought the Enlightenment on the bayonets of his army. The regime, in the terms of comparative politics, was authoritarian, oligarchic, patriarchal, and gerontocratic. That is for those who suppose labels are explanations. Napoleon, extracting a huge tribute from Venice, had the Golden Book of the Doges publicly burned. It was the genealogical register of the ducal families, the clan that sired the succession of doges, and its destruction completed the rupture with the past.

Venice was a republic; it did not have hereditary monarchs, though successful and powerful families strove for dynastic succession, and it did not have a feudal past in which a few owned the land and the landlord owned most people. The social strata were thus not the hard sediment they became elsewhere, but they hardened over the millennia. No gondolier ever became doge and no scion of the Golden Book ever poled a gondola.

Its foundation, existence, continuation, wealth, and stability depended on trade over the seas, and that trade required a great many skilled artisans to build, maintain, and repair the ships that were rented to merchants. The importance of these skilled craftsmen gave them more leverage in Venice than in many other comparable places. It is easier for the workmen at a single shipyard, the Arsenal, together to make their displeasure known than for an equal number of peasants scattered over vast estates to do so. See Gdansk in Poland for further confirmation.

The pages of the Golden Book represented about four percent of the population and the mercantile strata added another six percent, leaving the ninety percent out of the political, social, and financial elite. Those of the Golden Book tried hard to marry only within its own small ranks, and the merchants married their own kind when not trying to marry up. The total population in its prosperous times numbered about 100,000, more than it does today,

As with cities like Florence in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, the government of Venice was complicated and convoluted, by design, not by accident. When problems arouse a committee to act on it would be created and it would inevitably perpetuate itself in the first law of administration — goal displacement — revealed in 1957 by Philip Selznick in ‘Leadership in Administration.‘ There grew an encrustation of such committees with vague and overlapping remits, that never seemed to lapse. They often worked in ignorance of each other even when they had overlapping membership the law of secrecy applied. While laws were written, they were never codified and seldom promulgated and enforced only when necessary. It sounds very much like a university Department’s approach to self-government in the days when that was tolerated.

This open texture might seem to offer many opportunities for citizens to play one committee off against another, as is commonplace today in organisations, but not so in Venice, because the existence of most of these committees was secret, so secret that other committees with exactly the same terms would be created anew, and all of their activities were secret, too, including from each other.

Of course, there was no written constitution that spelled out anything. Some of that may remind a reader of working in a large organisation without an organisation chart, and no reporting. Yet everything is recorded. Ahem, see the passing remark above about a university department.

In a way, though prima facie more formal with its archive, it reminded me of the rule by talk in Colin Turnbull’s ‘The Forest People’ (1961) where every instance is treated as unique and talk, talk, talk until the antagonists prefer to give way than talk anymore, like those self-governing co-operatives in the 1970s where everything was done at all-staff meetings that went on, and on, and those who persisted eventually got their way. It was self-management by verbal attrition. Compared to this, McKinsey management looks better.

The Venetian mask a perfect metaphor for the pure city. It is ‘pure’ by the way because it had for most of its history no hinterland with apologies to Padua. It was all city and nothing else. While Florence had a rich agricultural land in its domain, where the Medici family raised beef cattle that still grace the plates of Italian cuisine, Venice had only itself and the lagoon.

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In Venice care was taken to be sure that the archivist was either blind or illiterate so he could not read the files, unlike Connie in the John Le Carré Cold War novels. The files might be sequestered but Connie knew what was in them despite the sealing wax. The files might be altered but Connie forgot nothing. Corporate memory resided in one sodden pensioner.

That passing mention of Padua reminded me that Venice has another connection with Machiavelli. Cardinal Reginald Pole who broke with Henry VIII spent an exile in Padua where he became aware of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ and wrote a condemnation of it, though it is doubtful he read it. Since King Henry’s confident Thomas Cromwell had earlier spent time in Italy, Pole supposed that he learned his sins from Machiavelli. Association is poor proof of cause and effect, but this tenuous thread is woven into Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels.

Today Venice remains a city of trade, and its trade is with tourists who come to it as if the whole city is a continuous exposition. Venice remains an entrepôt and the product it mow sells is itself. The tourist Venice, the Venice a tourist sees is Venice, he concludes.

While Ackroyd's impressionistic tour refers to the mysteries and crimes of Venice the dedicated krimi reader turns to Donna Leon for detail.

Ackroyd mug.jpg Peter Ackroyd from the dust jacket.

This book is all trip and no arrival. It meanders here and there and Ackroyd is a superb cicerone.

Sometime ago I promised a second instalment from the OSS manual for Allied sympathisers in continental Europe during World War II. For those who have patiently waited, here it is. The manual's purpose was to show sympathisers how they could obstruct the Nazi war effort by gumming up the works ever so innocently without blatantly risking their lives.

One section was addressed to managers of companies, firms, and organisations from railroads to enamelware factories.

The items read like key performance indicators from McKinsey whose client list has included Enron and Swissair. Remember them?

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(1) Demand written orders. Meanwhile, time passes and nothing is done.

(2) Misunderstand orders. Ask endless questions about minute details or engage in long correspondence about such orders. Meanwhile, time passes and nothing is done.

(3) Do everything possible to delay completion. Even though part of an order
may be ready, don't deliver it until it is completely finished. Say that standards have to be maintained. More time passes.

(4) Do not order new raw materials until current stores have been exhausted, so that the slightest delay in filling your order will mean a shutdown. Why? It is inefficient to hold surplus material. Time keeps passing.

(5) Order only high-quality materials which are hard to get. Warn that inferior materials will mean inferior products. There is never enough high-quality material to go around so this order leads to an argument about priorities. These arguments never end. More time passes.

(6) In making work assignments, always assign the unimportant jobs first. See that the important jobs are assigned to inept workers. This is definitely from the McKinsey training course.

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(7) Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for revision those products which have the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not going to be detected until use in the hope these products will fail at a crucial moment. Thus one appears fastidious but lets slipshod products through. Another chapter in the training manual, that one.

(8) Make mistakes in routing so that products are sent to the wrong place. A few well chosen typographical errors do the trick. If the reports have not been acknowledged, then one cannot proceed.

(9) When training new workers, assign training to those who have have no experience in the hope that they will give incomplete or misleading instructions. Ah, a favourite of mine. McKinsey all the way. The trainers have never used and never will use the system that they train others to use. A classic.

(10) To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work. Reward the incompetent and punish the competent. This one has long a key performance indicator for some modern major managers.

(11) Hold meetings when there is more critical work to be done. Do so especially when the pressure is on, declaring that only by discussion can morale be raised.

(12) Multiply paper work in plausible ways. Start duplicate files offsite. Who can object to paperwork? Preparing, sorting, and filing takes time. Assign one of the best workers to this clerical job on the grounds that the paper trail must be perfect.

(13) Multiply the procedures and clearances. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do. Make sure it is always an odd number in the hope that there will be disagreement among them. Invoke our old friend standards again.

(14) Apply all regulations to the last letter. Work to the rule. Was for orders; show no initiative. The more obscure and less relevant the regulation the better. See standards above.

pellits.jpg I never got the pellets.

The OSS was the Office for Strategic Services, the forerunner to the CIA.

Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) was 21st President of the United States (1881-1885).

Arthur cover.jpg

Chet was born in Vermont and went west briefly to make his fortune before settling in New York City. He is often associated with the worst presidents in rankings by historians, along with Warren Harding, Franklin Pierce, Ulysses Grant, Millard Fillmore, and Andrew Johnson. Yet he is the president who signed the Pendleton Act into law, one of the landmarks of 19th Century politics.

His religious father was a devoted abolitionist and Chester, at his urgings, went west to practice law and to keep Kansas a free state. He found the wild west very wild and very far away and stayed only a few weeks before heading back. That was the first, and perhaps the last time, conviction governed his actions.

He made his way in New York by attaching himself as a loyal lieutenant to movers and shakers. He was personally sociable and gregarious, a man who positively enjoyed wiling the night away in mens’ clubs where he got to know everyone and offended no one. While he was never anyone’s first choice for anything, no one was ever against him, ergo a reliable second choice at any time.

When the Civil War occurred he duly took to the colours of the New York state militia where he was appointed a quartermaster general by a patron. He secured this plum and cushy appointment, a long way from the cannon’s roar when hapless migrants were conscripted to die in the fields of Virginia, by the grace and favour of one Roscoe Conkling, who at the time and place was a kingmaker.

At the end of his military service, Arthur was a rich man. Our author has it that his law firm made a lot of money. Class, see if this makes sense: As quartermaster general he let contracts worth millions for food, weapons, clothing, boots, animals, fodder, leather goods, and more. Ever heard the word ‘kickback?’ Our author has not. Wikipedia is more suspicious and implies that Arthur used his position as quartermaster general in the most populous state to enrich himself.

He was not especially avaricious about it, but then he was not subtle either. Why bother when it was common practice to do so. Think Tammany Hall, and there is the picture, an alliance of Democrats and Republicans to exploit the government. Has a modern ring to it, doesn’t it?

Moreover this client passed even more ill gotten gains on to his patron, Senator Conkling, who was sometimes referred to as ‘His Lordship.’ Lord Conkling was avaricious and wanted all he could get, in part to bank roll his own plans for the presidency.

Arthur enjoyed luxury in food, furnishing, alcohol, and cigars which he generously shared with cronies in his Fifth Avenue hotel suite, which he kept even after marrying. Indeed the only point of tension with his wife was his persistent networking and socialising at the hotel night after night. She, Nell, died unexpectedly and young and left him a widower who continued the same life.

Conkling had him appointed Collector of the Port of New York by President Rutherford Hayes in a spoils deal. In return for supporting Hayes's election campaign in New York state, Conkling got to allocate federal government position in the state. It was routine at the time for each new president to dismiss the entire workforce of the federal government and appoint anew those who had supported him,a changeover that might take a year to complete. Call these office seekers. This is the spoils system which had reached its peak by this time.

The Collector of the Port of New York was one of the most important positions in the country. Far more important than most cabinet offices or governor’s chairs. What was collected was tariffs on imports and taxes on exports, and the resulting revenue in New York consisted of more than half of the income of the federal government.

By some quirk of circumstance unknown to our author, Arthur and Conkling became ever richer during his tenure as Collector. Class, figure it out. Whatever, the brandy was French, the cigars were Cuban, the sofas were stuffed, the food was rich, and Chester Arthur moved in the world of J. P. Morgan, Jay Cooke, John Jacob Astor, John Rockefeller, Daniel Drew, Jay Gould, Charles Crocker, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Robert Risk, and other Robber Barons who ran the country while Hayes played at being president. There is silence about women.

Arthur was much whiskered, carefully coiffured, a dandy with expensive clothes and accoutrements. He liked all of these trappings of wealth, perhaps because they compensated for his lack of good looks, commanding presence, or manly experience in the Civil War or on the frontier. Reading of him I was reminded of a passage from ‘The Great Gatsby.’ Applied to Arthur it would mean he knew himself from the outside in. He wore expensive clothes so that meant he was an important man, and so on.

Arthur was one of the first customers for a new fangled designer who worked with metal and glass, named Charles, Charles Tiffany, who later became famous for his lamps.

After the Civil War the Republican Party, wrapped in Abraham Lincoln’s bloody shirt, was the dominant political force. The Democrats condemned for their association with rebellious southern states ran a few cities in the north but otherwise were a spent force for decades. In the broad church of the Republican Party there were deep rivalries based on personalities, not ideologies or regions.

The most important one was between the ambitions of Roscoe Conkling and James Blaine of Maine for the presidency. These two were alike in their ideology-free ambition and unalike in every other way. Conkling was a bon vivant, open schemer, sybarite, aggressive, crude, and ill mannered. He fits the 7MATE demographic, a real man’s man.

RConkling.jpg Roscoe Conkling

Blaine was withdrawn, introspective, perhaps shy, and reflective, more inclined to read Caesar’s ‘Gallic Wars than drink with the boys. More the SBS2 demographic. Their respective factions divided the Republican Party in half.

Blaine.jpg James Blaine

After a succession of Republican presidents, Grant, Hayes, and then Garfield, all Union generals, and the end of the military occupation of the South in the so-called Reconstruction when the seceding states laboured to pay taxes to settle the war debt, the Democrats came back to life. Off and on there was talk of a third term for Grant, which was new to me.

Conkling and Blaine both wanted the Republican presidential nomination in 1880, but more than that, each wanted to be sure the other did not get it. They undercut each other so effectively that James Garfield, who was not a member of either camp got the nomination. To win, he had to make peace with the two godfathers of the party and this he did by promising Blaine the office of Secretary of State and the say in a number of other appointments, which Blaine supposed he could use to plan a later push for the highest office, and by promising Conkling complete sway in New York state. The rivalry had become personal to Conkling and he would not serve in a cabinet that included Blaine he made clear, and New York was good but not enough.

Garfield pondered Conkling’s intransigence and then went directly to Arthur and offered him the Vice Presidential nomination in a move replicated nearly a hundred years later when Jack Kennedy went directly to Lyndon Johnson, no intermediaries, no consultation with trusted advisors. Arthur immediately accepted and shook hands with Garfield.

Conkling was outraged. Which was the greater felony? That Garfield went straight to Arthur without first asking Conkling if he could approach Arthur, or that Arthur accepted without seeking the approval of Conkling. The journalists observing all of this, often in the same room when the deals were done, supposed Arthur would not withstand the inevitable brow-beating from Conkling, and were thus surprised when he later appeared on the podium.

By the way Conkling was nicknamed ‘Lord Conkling’ and he liked that. He liked having graft monies delivered to him while sitting at his desk in the Senate like a lord receiving tribute from vassals

For the first time in his life as an ever loyal second Arthur defied his boss and told him so to his face. Conkling was apoplectic but when he calmed down later, he made the best of if because at least Blaine did not get the nomination and reluctantly allowed his New York state machine to campaign for the Garfield-Arthur ticket.

Garfield Prex.jpg James Garfield

Garfield won and Arthur was installed as Veep, where his major duty, like all before and after him was to preside over the United States Senate’s meetings. This purely nominal duty turned out to be more important than any of the pundits expected for the Senate was evenly divided between Republicans, who had spent a lot of time fighting among themselves, and resurgent Democrats at thirty-seven each. Arthur had the deciding vote and he suddenly became an important person, not just a figure head.

Conkling’s influence nosedived from that day on. In fact, he soon lost his own Senate seat, so gross were his malefactions that even the New York legislators could not overlook them, and he was turfed. now a footnote of history.

Garfield took the oath of office and Blaine became Secretary of State. Three months after that Blaine walked with Garfield to Union Station to take the train to New York City when Charles Guiteau shot Garfield in the back. Two police officer grabbed Guiteau who made no effort to escape. Instead he told the officers that he had shot Garfield so that Arthur could be president, a line he stuck in his subsequent trial. Huh?

Arthur had nothing to do with any of this, that is absolutely sure, but Guiteau said it and more than once. Guiteau was a distant follower of the Blaine camp and he had formed a hatred of Conkling and his influence and he erroneously perceived Garfield to be Conkling’s catspaw. At his trial the defence attorneys argued that Guiteau was insane and that made about as much sense as Guiteau did.

When I learned of Garfield’s murder as a school boy the line was that Guiteau was a disappointed office seeker who took revenge on Garfield for not appointing him to a lucrative federal government office, and this line is still followed in the Wikipedia entry. There is truth in that interpretation because he had written letters asking to be appointed, but it is not what he said.

Arthur was in New York City when the telegram arrived telling him Garfield was wounded. A few minutes later a journalist arrived to tell him what Guiteau had said about him - Arthur. Gulp! ‘What to do?’ he must have thought. He went immediately to Washington to see Garfield, who was comatose and to see Garfield’s wife and family and offer sympathy and aid. He then retuned to New York City and stayed there Incommunicado for the three months that followed while Garfield slowly died.

His reasoning was that he best not appear eager for the office, and indeed, it seems he was not, and so he kept the lowest possible profile.

Garfield abed.jpg Garfield, wounded.

Another telegram arrived to announce that Garfield was dead. A local judge administered the oath of office and he was the twenty-first man to be president of the United States on 22 September 1881.

Guiteau argued his own defence, and his blame-shifting reminded me of some people I have worked with. First that Guiteau shot him is Garfield’s fault for walking to the station and so exposing himself to attack, that Garfield died of the wound is the fault of the incompetent doctors who did not save him, and that he died in New Jersey and so a D.C. federal court could not try him. Marvellous, but he was hung.

Arthur returned to Washington and took a hotel suite, leaving the Garfield family in the White House as long as they wanted.

As discrete as he was and considerate of the Garfield family, his incommunicado also meant there was no executive in the government for three months. This is a time when there was constant friction along the vaguely demarcated Canadian border, when European powers flirted with interventions in Mexico and Guatemala while the Indian wars were continuous and anti-immigrant riots were frequent in New York City and San Francisco. Though our author is silent on this I rather think James Blaine may have steadied the ship.

Arthur took the oath of office in Washington and made a short but apt speech some of which is quoted in this book as his ‘inaugural address.’ I balked at that word ‘inaugural’ because succeeding vice-president were not elected to the office of president and so do not give inaugural addresses.

No sooner had Arthur sat down in the big chair than all his drinking buddies, led by Roscoe Conkling, arrived, sat down, and put their feet up his desk, and called him Chet.

This worm turned. Arthur firmly directed them to remove their feet from the president's desk and henceforth to address him as Mr President. Conkling choked on this rebuke but swallowed it. The others did as they were told. Conkling had expected to secure a cabinet appointment and he also expected to see Blaine dismissed. Neither happened.

At this point Arthur had one outstanding quality. He owned no one anything. No one had expected him ever to be president and so beforehand no one had bothered to extract commitments from him and his incommunicado had prevented later efforts at that. He was his own man. On the other hand, there was nothing he wanted to do, nor was he committed publicly to do anything. He stuck to that with one exception. In all of this there are many parallels with John Tyler who became tenth president.

Installed in the White House Arthur made his sister the hostess, and she set about redecorating the dump, encouraged by Arthur. Louis Tiffany came to the fore and made his reputation there. Virtually nothing had been spent on the White House since it had been rebuilt after the War of 1812. Congress repeatedly refused to fund anything for the president. Before it could be redecorated, much of it had to be rebuilt from the inside out and it was. In the aftermath of Garfield’s death Congress voted this presidential expenditure. The changes wrought as described in these pages sound grand, but all them were ripped out by subsequent occupants to keep up with the fashions of changing times and nothing is left of the Tiffany White House. It all went into the landfill.

Screen.jpg An example of a Tiffany screen like one installed in the White House.

The Robber Barons continued to rob. The army continued to murder Indians. Attacks on Irish immigrants on the East Coast and Chinese on the west were a daily occurrence. British and French interests continued to plot in Central and South America. More than once, shipping on the Great Lakes was interrupted by British patrols.

The federal government had grown during the Civil War and since then business had boomed. The coffers were full and the size of government began to diminish. Arthur ran a surplus and cut excise taxes.

The spoils system, started by Democrat Andrew Jackson, had become a monster that consumed itself in the case of Garfield’s murder for the label disappointed office seeker stuck to Guiteau ever after, and the longstanding minority voices calling for a reform of the civil service were reinvigorated and now heard afresh. The example of the 1854 Northcote–Trevelyan Reforms in Great Britain the generation before was cited and speakers spread the word as did newspapers. The result became the Pendleton Act of 1883 which Arthur, a creature of the spoils system, signed into law, ending the very system that had made him. Ironies of ironies.

Pendleton act toon.jpg

It slowly established civil service examinations for entry, seniority for promotions, ended levies of political contributions from salaries, and myriad of other things. Democrat George Pendleton of Ohio sponsored the legislation in the Senate. When its centenary came in 1983, I was sorry to see it pass pretty much in silence.

The Republicans had long been complacent of their domination of federal politics, but a rude awakening was delivered in the mid-term Congressional elections in November 1882 with Democrats sweeping into majorities in both houses. As a last ditch effort to redeem itself in the eyes of a jaded electorate the old Republicans who still dominated Congress passed the Pendleton Act, which had been languishing in committee for years, to claim the mantle of reform before the new members of Congress were invested in March 1883 and preparations began for the November 1884 presidential election.

One effect of the Pendleton Act was to drive political parties into the arms of business and later trade unions to seek money to campaign the length and breadth of the land. The toxic embrace endures today.

The immediate effect was to undercut Arthur’s support in New York which was entirely based on patronage. The Pendleton Act pleased no one. For the reformers it was not enough and for the spoilsmen is was too much. Thus Arthur alienated his allies and did not win any new friends to replace them. At last Blaine got the nomination for 1884.

Arthur's high living had also caught up with him in a combination of internal ailments which left him weakened. He died shortly after leaving office at fifty-seven.

Karabel.jpg Zachary Karabell

This was an easy book to read and it is sprinkled with insights and some very well turned phrases. It is odd that the author seems deliberately to turn away from the obvious fact that Arthur systematically used public office for his own private enrichment. Yes, others, too, did so but they were not president and he was and they are not the subject of this book and he is. It is also disconcerting to see several references to Thomas Reeves, ‘Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester A. Arthur’ (New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975) as the authoritative biography. It made me think I should have been reading that. As is the case with books in this series, this one is not based on primary research but rather synthesises existing biographies, and so it remains at a distance from the subject and a reader feels that.


This is the third instalment in this mile-a-minute series that combines science and ectoplasm. Herr Coroner Dr Martin Gänsewein remains saddled with Pascha, late car thief extraordinaire and murder victim. Of all the cadavers in all the pathology labs in all of the world Martin had the bad luck to slice into this one cadaver, complete with a ghost, who can communicate only with him, and who does, often.

Morgue 3.jpg

They are the odd couple to end odd couples. Pascha, phantasm though he be, retains his lowlife interests and four-letter word vocabulary, while Martin is a round-shouldered, mumbling, introverted, shy, rumpled, near-sighted, hyper-conscientious scientist who eats lettuce leaves, flosses between his toes, and does not drink alcohol. ‘He calls that life,’ says Pascha with a snort.

In between solving crimes in the first two books, Martin spends much time, effort, and money in the vain attempt to screen out Pascha. Microwave transmissions disrupt Pascha’s atoms, he discovers, but harnessing those at home proves to be challenging and impossible at work. Having a ghost shouting in his mind has disrupted Martin’s slow and uncertain love-life with Birgit, and the fallout has confused his colleagues and friends. At times Martin oscillates between the hysterical and the comatose, caused as we and he know by Pascha’s hectoring.

Pascha can also interact with the voice recognition software of Martin’s computer which he uses to write an account of his adventures that he submits by email to a publisher, without Martin being the wiser. Pascha’s career as a writer is one theme in this romp. He is delighted to be published but angry that the work is called fiction!

Another theme is the new manager of the Forensic Institute of Cologne who is an MBA, charged to increase efficiency and cut costs to the bone. That he knows nothing of the legal environment in which the Institute works, that he cares nothing at all about pathology, that he knows nothing about preserving police evidence, these facts do not cause him to miss a beat. He simply delegates responsibilities to others while undercutting and undermining them. Ah, corporate life! The key performance indicators click over. At least he is no hypocrite, he does not mouth platitudes about the staff, he simply shafts them, belittles them, and shows open contempt for them. A refreshing honesty in that.

All of that is credible and the author must have worked in a large organisation where she observed this kind of McKinsey-speak management.

In no time at all the new boss, whom one of Martin’s colleagues nicknames Piggy Bank, is renting out the morgue’s facilities to funeral directors, who come and go at all hours of the day and night. Soon enough, things go missing, like the body of a murder victim. In the subsequent search for a scapegoat, Piggy Bank's eyes land on the inoffensive, compliant, and meek Martin. He accepts his fate with resignation, while Pascha is outraged!

Meanwhile, Herr Piggy Bank is completely without scruple or shame. See, I said realistic.

Another of his innovations is to charge the police for consultations with the pathologists. In no time at all Martin has violated Piggy Bank’s many new rules and is dismissed. That frees him to probe more and he does but only because Pascha drives him to it.

Meanwhile, Pascha has stumbled onto the reason for the body snatching, and alerts Martin. It is more complicated than that, of course, because Pascha has fallen in love with Irina, a doctor, and Birgit has laid down the law to Martin about his strange lapses (when Pascha is yelling at him). On top of the that Cologne is hit by a relentless heatwave that makes everyone’s life a misery.

Pascha’s efforts to communicate his feeling to Irina are … extreme. The incorporeal and corporeal just do not mix. As always, his efforts backfire on Martin.

Piggy Bank is a marvellous character, the very model of modern major manager. He is tanned, even in winter we are sure, taut of skin, brisk of manner, clear of eye, devoid of conscience, free of knowledge, completely teflon, seen only when he wants something, totally indifferent to the staff who are only costs, obsequious to his superiors, haughty to underlings, tasseled of shoes, blazer-wearing, and he speaks but key performance indicators, single-mindedly pursuing his own advancement. Sound familiar?

It all comes together, and it all comes out in the wash. The plot is ingenious and kept me guessing until the author produced the rabbit. Then, 'Voila!' It all made sense. Several blue herrings added to the misdirection.

Jutta.jpg Jutta Profijt

Not all the loose ends were tied. When Martin, on Piggy Bank’s orders, refused to talk to police officer Jenny, she storms off to have it out with Piggy Bank, and….. I don’t know.

The self-deprecating joke the book ends with is delicious. Toilet brush indeed!

To coincide with a state visit by Queen Elizabeth II the British Crown jewels go on display in Mumbai. The wing of the museum where this display will sit is specifically built for the purpose to make it thief-proof but attractive for visitors. Any reader can infer the rest.

Jewel.jpg

Detective Inspector Chopra, retired, sworn enemy to all crime, is an early visitor with his wife Poppy. But twenty visitors at a time are admitted to the inner sanctum where the crowns, orbs, tiaras, maces, and the Koh-i-Noor diamond are displayed. By the way, ‘Koh-i-Noor’ means ‘mountain of light.’

As Chopra inclines his head to read the card with one display his gaze travels past a face on the other side of the glass case, one that seems familiar, then the lights go out, both in the room and in Chopra’s head, while in the darkened room a gas immobilised everyone even as loud noises faintly registered on those losing consciousness.

Yes, the Koh-i-Noor diamond was taken, and nothing else, in the raid. The back wall of the room blown in (or was it out?) and the unbreakable glass in the case was broken. How could this happen?

When dusted off, Chopra ponders all of this in the back of his restaurant that caters to police officers (who are enemies of crime, and that criterion excludes quite a few) with Ganesha, his pet elephant. Poppy manages the restaurant and she and Chopra have all but adopted the one armed bus boy Irfan, who in turn dotes on Ganesha. Only Chopra’s mother-in-law remains a blue-bottle fly in the ointment, a very conspicuous one since she runs the front of the house at the restaurant, intimating the hardened officers who arrive and infuriating the chef with her interference.

The response to the embarrassing theft of the crown jewel is to slam-up a scapegoat immediately. The key performance indicator is thus satisfied. Who better than the hapless police officer who was responsible for security, an old comrade-in-arms of Chopra who is drawn into the case.

Chopra's detective agency has prospered for there are many straying husbands to watch and young daughters who may be keeping the wrong company, but while profitable these matters are dead boring, though Ganesha has proven to be an ace at surveillance. He never tires, never blinks, never loses concentration. While Chopra naps in the specially designed baby-elephant transporting van, Ganesha keeps watch and nudges Chopra into consciousness when the target moves. Only in the streets of Mumbai would passers-by not notice an elephant.

To handle the routine cases, Chopra recruits his one-time senior sergeant who has dismissed from the police force by a jealous superior for no reason at all. While the sergeant has no education or training, he knows the streets and people of Mumbai better than anyone else, and his loyalty and dedication are unalloyed. He makes light work of even some tricky cases with Poppy’s help, while Chopra is drawn more deeply into the matter of the crown jewel.

His conversations with the Scots forensic officer that the Brits dispatched post-haste to the scene are amusing examples of culture clash, each lapses in the professional patois and linguistic idioms of their countries to the incomprehension of the other. When the Scot is describing the one-two-three boom of the explosive used, he caps the story with ‘and Bob’s your uncle!’ Chopra's looks around for Bob. Then he hesitates and says he has no uncle Bob. The Scot thinks this might be a snide remark, but …. We should have heard more from this Scot later in the book but we do not.

Instead we get the red-faced, gigantic, humourless Inspector of Scotland Yard who shadows the investigating Indian officer, whom Chopra knows to be as incompetent as he is corrupt. The Yard Inspector seems to accept that Indian officer’s lead in arresting the security manager, i.e., until circumstances, involving an elephant, throw them together and he tells Chopra that the investigating officer is nutter who ought to be in the slammer himself instead of trying to beat a confession out of a fellow officer. They make an odd couple sort of alliance, pool their evidence and suspicions, and cooperate in an elaborate charade that reveals all. It involves a very large cake, but that is only the beginning. No spoiler.

V Khan.jpg Vaseem Khan

The touch is light though some of the material is dark, indeed, and Poppy has her own investigation among the cut-throat world of private high schools. She is ably assisted by the sergeant who has seen through many lies and sees through those told in the hallowed halls of learning.

This book is a popular presentation of some serious studies in the psychology of perception and memory. It shows how counter-intuitive reality can be. It also overstates its case and enforces a technical vocabulary where it adds little or nothing to the general reader, who seems to be the target audience.

gorilla cover.jpg

The video that made the authors famous and which explains the title can be found on You Tube. It is a psychology experiment in which observers are instructed to count the number passes a basketball team makes, and while the observers count, a gorilla walks across the court. Well, a student wearing a full-body gorilla suit, since the research grant did not run to capturing and training a complaint gorilla.

Imposible to miss!

Hmm, missed by about 50% of all subjects through repeated iterations and variations.

We can indeed miss things in front of our very eyes, and do so nearly every day. So I say from personal experience. Because we miss them, we suppose they were not there, but they were.

The explanations are many, and in these pages become increasingly, and needlessly, complex, no doubt to justify the grants that produced the fame and book contract(s). My cynicism is showing.

We see most readily what we are looking for. Indeed we often can only see something if we are looking for it, and in concentrating on that, we miss much else. Whoops! But then concentration is supposed to do that, focus.

In parallel we are less likely to see what we are not looking for, and the even less likely to see it, the more out of place it is. This latter is counter-intuitive. But that gorilla is an example. It is completely out of place and, consequently, invisible (to half the watchers). Another player, a coach, a referee, a cheerleader wandering onto the floor might have been spotted more often for the fit the context.

To reiterate. something extremely odd can be the most easily missed. See, counter-intuitive, because one would think the oddest things would stand out, but they do not always do so. Sometimes, yes, but often times no.

Add to this perception blur-memory and the plots thickens. If it is not perceived in the first place but is just a blur, memory cements over it, and it never happened.

The authors demonstrate these failings, which seem very plausible in my own personal experience, with a combination of laboratory experiments and case records of automobile accidents, flight simulator video evidence (nearly enough to put me off flying), conflicting eye witness testimony, and trial records. The range and variety of this empirical evidence is impressive.

One of the governing points is that our contextual expectations shape perception and also memory. We do not expect to see a gorilla while a basketball team practices passes.

There is also cognitive load, which the authors do not give any attention, but they do note that when the task assigned to observers is made more difficult, gorillas sightings decrease. For example, to ask observers to count separately air versus floor passes makes the gorilla all but invisible to everyone. The more complex the assignment, the more concentration it takes, the less attention remains to detect the unexpected.

There is another example of cognitive overload in these pages. Drivers who follow the GPS oral directions despite the obvious mistake it is making. They ignore flashing lights, barriers across the road, and drive off collapsed bridges, over the culverts of incomplete roads, and on to rail way tracks because the computer voice told them to do so. I would like to think I would not do this, but…. I have found GPS directions mistaken when roadworks blocked the recommended routes and had the wit to stop on those occasions. Who knows what the future will bring?

Of course, magicians and other illusionists have long exploited misdirection, distractions, sleights of hand, and lighting to make audiences see what the magician wants its members to see and not what is in fact happening before their very eyes. The authors have not yet referred to this domain in my incomplete progress through this book. Though the illusionists do not publish in ranked journals and apply for National Science Foundation grants, hide behind polysyllabic jargon, nor make mountains out of molehills as scholars must, so they may get short shrift in these pages.

There are many more ingenious experiments to justify research grants. If magicians are neglected so too is the simple fact of concentration. If I am concentrating on counting passes maybe I should not see the gorilla. Perhaps the observers who see the gorilla made mistakes about the pass count. Nothing is said about the accuracy of the observations, but if I were paying pass-counters that is what I would want them to do, count, not notice gorillas. Many of the examples given involve witnesses who are not concentrating. A student passes people on the street, and one says ‘Hello.’ Five minutes later the student cannot describe this person. Well, so what? If that student had been told the description would be on the final exam, it would have been remembered.

Two passengers in a moving car see an assailant pull a bike rider to the ground. Interviewed by police thirty minutes later and they give different description of the assailant. Again, so what? They were not concentrating on the scene. It was a blur.

Of course, the authors’ point, is in part, that such witnesses each individually think they do have an accurate description even when one, if not both, of them must be wrong. It is this confidence that is the underlying problem, and the authors nail that. It is the this also confidence that presents many problems. Agreed, but I am not sure this book has narrowed that down any.

Though in doing so, it seems like overkill. The messages seems to be that no one is ever right in the first place and subsequent memory further erodes. To give up would seem to be the best response to such a hopeless situation.

Men in black.jpg I thought of these two when reading about memory in this book.

Hmm, well I just watched an American football game and there the players with enormous concentration remembering intricate plays from a manual of fifty or more, in a deafening stadium, driving rain, with hard hitting opponents, carrying injuries, and growing tired toward the end of the season and the end of the game. Memory does work better when one concentrates.

The authors offer some amusing anecdotes to illustrate the fragility of memory but to this reader that is all they are: anecdotes. Men often appropriate each other’s stories as their own in the retelling and when challenged about it, get very defensive. (I have even seen women do this.) What is going on in such cases is not primarily a false memory but a stupid lie followed by a masculine refusal to admit it. No National Science Foundation grant is required to explain this everyday event.

More disturbing are airline pilots in simulators who are so absorbed in reading gauges that they do not notice the tanker-truck on the runway.

A tendency in this book is to name a ….a what? … a syndrome, and then move on to another ingenious experiment. The missed gorilla and the missed tanker truck are treated as instances of the same tendency and yet they differ so much in context and consequence as to be different in kind.

Moreover, to this lay reader (I thought about say layman to see if it would arose a comment about gender but I forgot) that the nominalism is not very informative. By nominalism, I mean naming a pattern of (mis)perception - e.g, inattention to change, and suppose we now understand how it works. We do not; what we have, often in these pages, is a description with a label.

Chabris.jpg Charles Chabris

Simons.jpg Daniel Simon

While I am airing my nits, I find the book replete with name dropping of colleagues and of universities. Perhaps some editor encouraged that to make it more personal and less austere and scientific for a general reader but it makes it read too much like a letter to mom identifying all of the fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. It is all of a piece with the me-ism of the selfie.

Warning! cynicism overload.

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