On turning 40. Donald Justice and John Irving

The most creative birthday email I have received today quotes a poem by Donald Justice, as quoted in John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, as well as the response by the protagonists’ brother Frank:

And, when Frank was forty, I would send him a birthday greeting with Donald Justice’s “Men at Forty” poem enclosed.

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

Frank fired me back a note saying he stopped reading the damn poem right there. “Close your own doors!” Frank snapped. “You’ll be forty soon enough. As for me, I bang the damn doors and come back to them all the fucking time.”

85Broads and the final nail in the coffin

You might recall a social network for professional women, 85Broads, which I critiqued a while ago. The good news first: the ugly green-and-orange color scheme has finally gone, in favor of a less garish burgundy livery. (I still have reservations about the typograhic design and the mishmash of fonts on the site, but let’s consider that minor for now).

The more important news, however, is that the network has ditched free membership in favor of a paid model, as I discovered today – not because I visited the site, but because I read their email. And I would probably even sign up if, in the years I’ve been a member of the free site, I had had an inkling of a sense that there could be something in it for me. There may be a wonderful community of people in the real-life-based 85Broads network – I just never felt that, whatever that was, any of it was spilling over into the site. If a user has hardly ever had any use for your site in the last two or three years, to the point that your address has ended up in the cemetery of unused browser bookmarks, trying to upgrade that user from a free to a paid membership probably isn’t going to get you an enthusiastically paying user.

So, I’m OK with being booted out. Maybe there are tons of elite or niche communities that are traying to charge for even basic access, and some are even – who knows? – pulling it off. But for a Web community, or a Web extension of a real-life community, putting monetization before engagement, or trying to get people to pay fees before they have experienced anything of value or meaning to them, seems to me like the final nail in the coffin.

On accountants, economists, investment bankers, civilization, good and evil

You might be interested, dear readers, in the interview in the current issue of Stanford Lawyer with the eclectic Charles T. Munger, Warren Buffett’s longtime partner in Berkshire Hathaway. A few snippets for your enjoyment follow.

On the SEC:

The SEC is pretty good at going after some little scumbag whom everybody regards as a scumbag. But once a person becomes respectable and has a high position in life, there’s a great reticence to act. And Madoff was such a person.

On derivatives:

Some of the most admired people in finance—including Alan Greenspan— argued that derivatives trading, substituting for the old bucket shop, was a great contribution to modern economic civilization. There’s another word for this: bonkers. It is not a credit to academic economics that Greenspan’s view was so common.

On the accounting profession:

They are way too liberal in providing the kind of accounting the financial promoters want. They’ve sold out, and they do not even realize that they’ve sold out.

On economists:

They say it’s not economics if you think about the consequences of good and evil, and good and bad business accounting. I think what we’re learning is that when you don’t understand these consequences, you don’t have an adequately skilled profession.

On Lehman Brothers:

You can’t save everybody. That would have created unlimited revulsion in the body politic. I probably would have let Lehman go, too.

On Goldman Sachs:

The culture of Goldman Sachs as a partnership was morally superior and better for the surrounding civilization than the culture that came after it went public.

On investment bankers:

I have lived in my own life with responsible investment banking. When I was young, First Boston Company was an honorable and constructive firm and very much served the surrounding civilization. Investment banking at the height of this last folly was a disgrace to the surrounding civilization.

Sent back

ap_15716574_53050We sent them back. We put them on a motorboat and delivered them back to Libya.

We lied to them. We told them they were being escorted to Lampedusa. Instead, we dumped them on a dock in Libya – one of the few countries that have not even signed the Geneva Convention on Refugees (see map).

According to Italian news reports, we intercepted 227 people who thought the had ended their long trek to escape from Niger, Chad, Mali, Sudan and who knows where else. We did not bother verifying if any of them might qualify for asylum under the Geneva convention. We sent them back to be locked up in Libyan detention centers, beaten and raped by police officers.  Eight-five per cent of the women who get this far, says a spokesperson for Catholic NGO Caritas, have already been raped on their way to Italy.

And all of this for a handful of votes.

Book marketing via Twitter (or, Being Paola)

I am being followed by a Twitter user whose bio says “I am the author of The Adventures of Prince Nicholas. It will soon be in a bookstore near you.

I am being followed, I believe, because my name is Paola. Paola is getting to be a rather old-fashioned name, so no surprise that it has been chosen for a retro kind of character. Here are a few recent tweets that – I can only assume – are excerpts from the forthcoming book.

What can I say? Not my kind of writing.

But, nice try.

Prince Nicholas 1Prince Nicholas 2Prince Nicholas 3

Kunsthaus Zürich, lights and shadows

Upon becoming a member of the Zürcher Kunstgesellschaft earlier this year, I was surprised to learn that it has over 20,000 members and it is the second largest museum membership program in Europe after that of the Tate in London. This, with a city population of about 380,000 – 1.1m including the suburbs. Which makes Zurich, on a per capita basis, the place with the highest density of paying museum supporters in Europe.

But tonight, leafing through the assoication’s annual report, I found out that in 2008 visitor numbers at the Kunsthaus Zürich dropped to the lowest level in 10 years: only 214,000 visitors (vs. 310,000 in 2007 and the all-time high of 364,000 in 2000, the year of a Cézanne blockbuster). On the one hand, the report says, a few of the 2008 exhibitions (particularly Europop and Rivoluzione! Italian Modernism from Segantini to Balla) fell short of expectations; on the other hand, Zurich and Switzerland hosted a number of Euro 2008 soccer games as well as other competing events supposedly hurting museum attendance. Also, they make they rather unconvincing argument that since the exhibition program stretches over a three-year time horizon, there can be holes that imapct a given year’s numbers disproportionately – if so, we should see a steep rebound in 2009. In the meantime, twenty teams of architects are competing to build an extension to the Kunsthaus, with the winners to be announced in June and construction to be completed by 2015 at a cost of CHF 150 million, half from private sources and the other half committed by the city and the canton.

I have not yet seen any other museum’s 2008 visitor numbers and I don’t know whether the recession has caused other places to lose 30% of their visitors year on year. I would tend to guess, though, that there are places where the media would get at least a good crisis story out of this. Switzerland is probably too distracted by other shock news (unemployment breaking the 5% threshold! UBS announcing layoffs!) to start a conversation about the health of its cultural offerings.

Or, most likely, everybody is waiting for Art Basel in June. Last year’s edition packed 60,000 visitors (myself included) in just five days;  it is the most important commercial thermometer of the art market in the Continent. But with fewer people with serious money to spend, I doubt that even Art Basel will come close to last year’s success.