Book Review: The Moonlight Palace

The Moonlight Palace, by Liz Rosenberg

“Let’s agree right here at the outset that memory is made up of one part perception, one part intuition, and one part true invention.” So begins Agnes Hussein, the unreliable narrator of The Moonlight Palace. The last descendant of the last sultan of Singapore, she is a curious teenage girl in early 20th century Singapore. Her family, once rich and important, still lives in the palace that once ruled Singapore but is now a crumbling ruin. Getting by on rent from boarders and her grandfather’s military pension, the family is all but watching the clock run out. Agnes, the youngest member, has to find her way in a new world, one which is delightfully brought to life in the book. Singapore in the 1920s was a crossroads of worlds (European colonialists, Asian natives, Muslim immigrants) and times (the past and modernity), and the changes are integrated into the plot seamlessly. (My last fictional view into Singapore  was a little more blatant about describing the setting.) Agnes’s family finds herself at the center of the crossroads, as the power struggles to shape the future of Singapore play themselves out over the ownership of her family home. The larger ideas of what a country is (“For true progress to be made, a generation must be sacrificed.”) are reflected in the battle over the sultan’s palace.

In this time of change, Agnes is looking at the world as an adult for the first time. She gets her first job (from a Jew!) and develops her first crush (on an Englishman!), while her family’s boarders (a Chinese student and a devout Muslim) make news, too. Agnes has to grow up in the process of dealing with her family’s last throes of relevance in a rapidly changing world, and it’s that world that makes you care about the story. I can’t say enough about how interwoven the setting is with the story; after reading a chapter just to see what happens you realize you got to see a whole new world without having it take you out of the story. It’s probably the most difficult accomplishment of historical fiction, and it’s done here to near perfection.

The prose is efficient and not spectacular, though it contains a few gems:

“We were still in the honeymoon phase, when you don’t tell the other person everything you are thinking.”

“People fight ferociously to keep their dreams intact. … Nations…flags…religions…”

The real accomplishment here was creating a universe and reflecting it in a microcosm of a story. Recommended.

T. Rowe Price And Statistical Innumeracy

T. Rowe Price has been running commercials for years telling us that “Over 70% of our funds beat their 10-year Lipper average.” (The Lipper Average is an industry-measure of average performance.) They’re still using it, and it’s even on their website, so it must be working for them. Measuring against average market performance is the right benchmark for investments, but investing in T. Rowe Price doesn’t actually guarantee you above-market performance. I don’t even mean the usual “past performance doesn’t guarantee future results.” I mean, even if you’d invested in ten funds ten years ago, and 70% of them outperformed the Lipper average, you may well have lost money. Assume a Lipper average of 9%, and the table below as a sample investment you made ten years ago.

Fund Initial Investment Final Amount Rate of Return
1 100 110 10
2 100 110 10
3 100 110 10
4 100 110 10
5 100 110 10
6 100 110 10
7 100 110 10
8 100 50 -50
9 100 50 -50
10 100 50 -50
Total 1000 920 -8

The losses you suffer in the 30% of funds that are below average may well erase all gains you get in the 70% that exceed the average. Your total return then may well be not only below the average, it may be below zero.

This is not an indictment of T. Rowe Price – they’re probably a fine bank or whatever. But “70% of our funds exceed their Lipper average” doesn’t really provide you with useful information. Don’t fall for it.

Book Review: I Am Livia

I am Livia, by Phyllis T. Smith.

Another Kindle First, I Am Livia is a type of historical fiction that I generally enjoy. The bystanders of history, if you will, who didn’t get the biographies and historical studies, can make for excellent fiction when their lives are fleshed out. (This is also great with stories about minor fictional characters.) Livia Drusilla, a Roman noblewoman and daughter of a senator, is a girl in a man’s world.* As a teenager, she witnesses her father’s involvement in the assassination of Julius Caesar, and this story chronicles her life through the political fallout of the two decades that follow. Livia is married (at 14 or 15) to her father’s friend Tiberius Nero, and the of them negotiate the power struggle for Rome as the adopted son of Julius Caesar, Octavianus, seeks to punish those who murdered Caesar and retake power.


That’s the political backdrop – assassinations, wars, escapes, and ever-shifting alliances. Smith describes the turbulence well, and also provides us with a lot of detail about everyday life in ancient Rome: the sacrifices to gods, the omnipresent slaves, the superstitions and the daily risks of disease and death. (Sometimes these rituals seem force-fed into the narrative to add color, a jarring weakness in an otherwise well-written book.)

The book’s strength, however, is telling us the role of a woman in that world.  Livia muses:

“Some would say it hardly mattered what women thought of Tavius, that even senators’ wives … had no power to shape events. But what if Portia, Brutus’s beloved wife, rather than encouraging his plan to assassinate Julius Caesar, had told him he would pointlessly destroy himself and others? I think Portia might have changed history.”

That’s the world she finds herself in – a place where, as her mother teachers her, a woman influences events by influencing the men in her life. Livia is ambitious (“Any woman who says she does not want to guide the actions of the man she loves is, in my opinion, lying.”) but not cutthroat; she wants to contribute, not dominate. She cares about her family, especially her children, and is willing to compromise a great deal to keep them safe. Her mind is focused on her relationships more than anything: when her husband departs for war, she cares more about him coming back safe than about the political repercussions. She is, in many ways, a stereotypical female, even though she accomplishes more than most of her peers. I won’t give away many plot details, but if you know your history, you should already know them.

Womanhood is a central theme, and the book’s efficient prose contains some real gems about women in a world shaped by men:

“Looking at her I had a sorrowful sense of the ineffectuality of her sort of goodness in the world.”

“Since our marriage, I had thought myself powerful. But now I saw that no real power had been mine. It had always been his. I had possessed only a knack for wheedling favors.”

Similarly, a letter Livia receives tells us who the men shaping this world are:

“I’m surrounded by idiots here. The stupidity of soldiers is like no other stupidity on earth. Sometimes I think men are physically brave only because they lack imagination and cannot anticipate what a spear in their guts would feel like.”

At one point, Livia has to deal with her choices to become involved in politics, and the prices that have to be paid to be effective in that field:

“I had wanted to be part of the world I had first glimpsed as a girl through my father’s eyes, the world of men who wielded power. But had I known I was asking for a front-seat view of butchery? In some way I supposed I had, but the full emotional meaning of this eluded me.”

Her evolution as a person, and especially as a woman, is the real story of this novel. Smith avoids the biggest pitfalls of inserting modern sentiments into an ancient culture, and for the most part it works – whatever concerns Livia has may well have been held by an educated Roman woman, and many women through history. It’s hard not to judge them through a modern lens, but that is the reader’s fault, not the author’s.

The book is framed as Livia’s memoirs, and she leads off with a feeling that immediately makes her relatable, not as a woman but as a human:

“It will take courage to remember the days I was Livia Drusilla. I wonder if I can do it without flinching.”

Would that we all could live without regrets. Recommended.

Email Disclaimers And The Environment

A few months ago, I wrote about how the IRS had probably killed people, or at least caused significant property damage (which you can translate into lives lost), by requiring a disclaimer attached to emails. The disclaimer is no longer required, but that doesn’t change the underlying logic of the costs of unnecessary language. Jeff Bennion at Above The Law puts some numbers to the principle, using the frequently encountered missive to “Please Consider The Environment Before Printing This Email.” He notes:

That disclaimer creates a .3 kb file size difference. Now, if every business email had that at the bottom, that would be 27,000,000,000 kb a day of data, or 27,000 gb of useless data being added every day to internet storage servers. That would be almost 10 million gigs of data a year of people patting themselves on the back for proclaiming their greenness. This data lives in server rooms where servers are kept on constantly. Only about half of the electricity costs of server data centers go towards running the servers. The other half is keeping the always-on servers cool so that the plastic Ethernet connectors do not overheat.

I know what you’re saying right now: “Not all 90 billion emails are including that at the bottom, so your estimates are way over.” True, but by that logic, it’s okay if only 10% of the population throws “Do not pollute” 6-pack-ring-shaped flyers into the ocean because it’s not everybody. Or, it’s okay to throw just a few cans out the window onto the highway if you are doing it to proclaim to others that you are against littering. The point is that it is a pointless gesture that, as a whole, does more harm than good.

As I mentioned in my original article, there are additional costs (reading, printing time, printing paper, printing ink, etc) involved in this. Nice to see the concept explored, though.

There’s more to this but I won’t write it. I’m saving lives.

Gregg Easterbrook Makes Up Evidence For Obviously True Idea

Gregg Easterbook, ESPN’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback, is a self-involved know-it-all who makes up his mind and then fits evidence around it. My friend Ben at The Bottom Of The Barrel does an excellent job demolishing Easterbrook’s idiocy on a weekly basis. This week, however, Easterbrook went further than usual and used outright dishonesty to “prove” that conservatives are hypocrites when it comes to states’ rights:

Both Sides Use Doublespeak On States’ Rights: Last week, when the Supreme Court declined to hear petitions from those seeking to prevent Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin from legalizing gay marriage, conservative Sen. Ted Cruz called this “judicial activism at its worst.” Federal courts don’t interfere with state autonomy — that’s “judicial activism?”

…Usually, conservatives praise states’ rights — but when Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin decided to recognize gay unions (civil marriage has always originated at the state or local, not federal, level), conservatives went ballistic. Why don’t those unelected federal judges step in!

While I would never intentionally defend Ted Cruz (and I guarantee he is a hypocrite; every partisan is), Easterbook is outright misleading here. For Cruz to be a hypocrite, the following had to have happened: the states, using their state mechanism (legislature, referendum, etc) pass a rule or law permitting or recognizing gay marriage; conservatives sue to prevent the law from being enforced; Cruz sides with those suing to prevent the law from being enforced. Reading the above, that’s what one might think had happened.

It wasn’t.

None of the states listed above – Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin – “decided to recognize gay unions” as Easterbrook says. Instead, they were ordered to recognize gay marriages by FEDERAL COURTS. Click on each state to see how they got gay marriage – it was always a lawsuit in federal court. The states, as most states have, passed laws prohibiting the recognition of gay marriages, and federal courts overturned those laws and ordered the states to do otherwise. What Cruz is saying is that these underlying laws passed by the states should be allowed to stand, rather than the judge-ordered recognition of gay marriage that overturned such laws. My guess is he’d be less enthused about it if it were a state law he disagreed with, but that doesn’t make his stance on this matter a hypocritical one.

Ironically, showing a politician is hypocritical is one of the easiest things I can imagine. There’s no need to make up evidence to do it.

MLB Playoff Review

Even though the World Series entrants haven’t been determined yet, two things have become clear:

1. You must root for the AL team, which is going to be the Kansas City Royals.

2. I’ve gotten everything wrong. Seriously, every pick I made in my playoff prediction has been the opposite of true. In fact, I didn’t pick a single League Championship Series team correctly. – none of the final four. That’s actually just as difficult to do as getting everything right, so I’ll take some solace in that, and the fact that I didn’t bet on any of this.

Anthony Kennedy & Gay Marriage (A Conspiracy Theory)

After the Supreme Court failed to grant cert to any appeals of lower court gay marriage rulings, Justice Kennedy added a twist:

A day after a federal appeals court struck down same-sex marriage bans in Idaho and in Nevada, implementation of the decision in Idaho was temporarily blocked on Wednesday by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the Supreme Court.

Justice Kennedy’s order came shortly after Idaho filed a request to the Supreme Court for an immediate stay of the appeals court ruling. The ruling was the latest in a nearly unbroken string of courtroom victories for gay couples. Justice Kennedy asked the proponents of same-sex marriage to file a response by Thursday afternoon.

These requests are pretty routine and as far as I know they haven’t been granted in any other cases except this one in the 9th Circuit by Justice Kennedy. Why might that be?

My guess, and this is based solely from a little bit of court watching, is that Kennedy wants to force the issue of gay marriage to the Supreme Court for a final decision. It’s telling that the gay marriage cases couldn’t gather four votes from either the conservative or the liberal justices. This tells us that neither side thinks it can win. Perhaps the conservatives remember Kennedy siding with gay marriage in Windsor. Perhaps the liberals see no need to take the cases and are content to wait until most, if not all, district courts have made gay marriage the norm. With gay marriage reaching public acceptance in a hurry, there’s little to be gained for them by giving conservatives a chance to set back the effort.

Kennedy is the swing vote here, and he might want to cast that vote and write that opinion while that’s the case. By blocking the implementation, he’s putting a lot of people – California is in the 9th Circuit – on hold while the appeals are resolved. If this drags on, it may spur the court’s liberals to grant cert and handle this once and for all.

Just an idea, of course.

MLB Playoff Preview & Predictions

Still very busy, so this is going to be quick. Just want to get it on the record.

AL Wild Card Game
A’s over Royals. The regular season struggles of the A’s won’t matter tonight.

NL Wild Card Game
Pirates over Giants. Pirates have an edge of offense that should settle this in the middle innings.

Tigers over Orioles. Had the Orioles not lost most of their infield…
Angels over A’s. Regular season replays itself.

Dodgers over Cardinals. I’m stupidly betting against the Cards in the postseason.
Nationals over Pirates. Wouldn’t be stunned if Pirates pulled this out, but pitching makes the difference.

Angels over Tigers. Tigers’ bullpen issues will haunt them here.

Dodgers over Nationals. Nationals have no bullpen issues, but they will because it’s the postseason and that’s what they do.

World Series
Dodgers over Angels. In the “Los Angeles” series, the slightly richer team wins.

Book Review: All That Is

All That Is, by James Salter

Following Nathaniel P., Philip Bowman is not that hard to take. Though he triggered a Slate war over Salter’s potential sexism (he’s sexist! no he’s not!), Bowman is not particularly surprising in his relationships to women. In the present day he’d certainly be sexist, sure, but he’s basically normal for his day and age.

His day and age start in 1945 in the Pacific, where he is a Navy sailor battling Japan. Upon his return (“life went on, one week very much like another, one year following another, and you began to lose track.“) he enters publishing as an editor and makes his living there. Though both affect him, neither shapes him; what really defines him are his relationship with women. (“He was aware of his insignificance, even triviality, and then suddenly it changed as she came in.“) His wife, whom he divorces, is but a stop on the way to more complicated adventures: affairs with married British women (“They had traveled for ten days and he felt he knew her, in the room he knew her, at least most of the time, and also sitting at the chestnut-colored bar of the hotel, but you could not know someone else all of the time, their thoughts, about which it was useless to ask.“), flings with Manhattan divorcees (everyone in this universe is divorced), and at least once, what he believes to be true love.  There are themes of aging (“At a certain point also you began to feel that you knew everyone, there was no one new, and you were going to spend the rest of your life among familiar people, women especially.“) and disappointment (“The ways part. Eddins’ life was now broken in two. The pieces were not equal. All that was happening and that could happen in the future was somehow lighter, inconsequential. Life had an emptiness, like a morning after.“) that will make you think a whole lot more as you get older.

Bowman isn’t a nice guy, but he’s also not a bad person. He’s selfish and often superficial, but he’s also apt to care more than you’d expect and get hurt in ways you don’t see coming. (Salter is not great at conveying this.) In many ways Bowman reminds me of Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock: portrayed as tough but repeatedly willing to get hurt. He’s the American man of the second half of the 20th century, with all that entails.

Good prose that will wear on you in parts, but as descriptive as anyone. Recommended if you want to jump into contemporary literary fiction for a bit. Also there is sex.

Thoughts on law, economics, sports, food, and pop culture. Not necessarily in that order.