Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Beautiful Struggle

The Beautiful Struggle
Ta-Nehisi Coates (2008, Spiegel and Grau)

Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in and around Baltimore. His memoir is the story of a bright but unfocused child (who, in other circumstances, would surely have been spotted as having attention deficit disorder,) learning to get along in the world on the streets. His oldest brother, Big Bill, has the Knowledge: he dresses in style, always has a few friends around for backup, carries a gun. Ta-Nehisi doesn't. He's a babe in the woods.

It's also the story of their father, Paul Coates, who wanted his children also to be Conscious of their historical place as descendants of the African diaspora. A Viet Nam veteran, he had been a member of the Black Panther party, in the days of its decline. In the late 1960s, the organization had fed breakfast to poor kids, and helped people keep their lights on, but 1972 saw it crumbling into factionalism and paranoia. The Panthers' threat of violence was genuine - he was once arrested for transporting guns - but he stepped out of the ashes to achieve a college degree, and then a masters. He took a job in the library of Howard University, commuting from Baltimore to DC. From his days in the movement and onward, his private passion was publishing and distributing forgotten treasures of African and African American history.

Having those books and pamphlets around the house was just a part of Ta-Nahisi's education. The hip-hop stylings of Public Enemy introduced a form of Consciousness that knuckle-headed teenagers could embrace. A bit later, there was a core of adults who rounded up fifteen-year-old boys and gave them a sort of paramilitary training, with calisthenics and sparring. Under their influence Ta-Nehisi got hooked on African drumming. School, as such, was a roller coaster. He was smart enough for advanced classes, but not focused enough to succeed in them.

It was actually Ta-Nehisi's mother who pushed him over the finish line into The Mecca of his father's dream, Howard University, after numerous perils and misadventures. He did eventually learn to defend himself, after a fashion, though fighting never really appealed to him. Nor did drugs, even as the crack epidemic mowed down the community around him. He was protected by his Walter Mitty innocence, and the watchful eyes of his parents, and plain good luck.

The book is both melancholy and angry about the old friends who weren't so lucky: "Their fates were maddeningly clichéd. Even the ones in whom I saw a tighter head game fell into shadow, became a statistic in the cold hands of some pundit, who looked out on our streets and rolled up his windows." Pathological as those streets may seem, or may actually be, the people who live there have a fundamental right to respect. "No matter what the professional talkers tell you, I never met a black boy who wanted to fail."

Though I found it difficult in places where I didn't have enough background in what he was talking about, Coates's writing is powerful and beautiful. He knows things most of us need to know, and says things we need to hear.

Thursday, October 1, 2015


Negroland: A Memoir
Margo Jefferson (Pantheon Books, 2015)

              Negroland is a memoir, and a meditation, on growing up privileged but black, or black but privileged. Margo Jefferson was born in Chicago, in 1947, to prosperous parents: her father was head of pediatrics at the nation's oldest black hospital, and her mother stayed home to raise two daughters. Margo and her sister went to private school, mainly with white children. They met their black peers at Jack and Jill, an organization dedicated to social and cultural enrichment for the future doctors, lawyers, and teachers they were presumed to be. 

              In calling that culture 'Negroland', Jefferson is looking back into a time when the term 'Negro' framed a hard-won and fiercely defended respectability. In spite of, or because of, the fact that they could expect so little respect in white quarters, the matriarchs of Negroland brought up their children to exacting standards of grooming, dress, and manners. For fear of disgracing their people, the Jefferson girls could not appear in public with ashy skin or unkempt hair; they could not wear denim (except at camp) or too-bright colors; they could not laugh too loud. 
               There's something isolating about all this, of course. It places this self-conscious elite at a remove from the mass of black people without quite admitting them to the upper classes as viewed by white America. Jefferson's memoir doesn't tell a major dramatic story, but it locates the drama in some small ones: her father, pulled over in Hyde Park because he doesn't look like he lives there; and her uncle Lucious, who passed for white in his working life, then failed to fit in when he retired and returned to black life. "And my parents looked down on him a little. Not because he'd passed, but because he'd risen no higher than traveling salesman. If you were going to take the trouble to be white, you were supposed to do better than you could have done as a Negro."

                Margo is, most of the time, an avid participant in the uplift on offer. She plays the piano, acts in plays, and goes out for cheerleading. She spends three summers at Interlochen, winning prizes for her enthusiasm and talent. She loves Audrey Hepburn and Diahann Carroll, Robert Browning and Langston Hughes, Ebony and Vogue. It's a very bright childhood, though marked at intervals by cautionary tales from her mother, because the costs of going off the rails are so very high. 
              And, always, of those to whom much is given, much will be expected, and that can be wearing. "We were to be ladies, responsible Negro Women, and indomitable Black Women. We were not to be depressed or unduly high-strung; we were not to have nervous collapses. We had a legacy. We were too strong for that." By way of rebellion, Jefferson cultivates an aesthetic of suicide for a time, though by then she's a successful journalist and literary critic. (Sylvia Plath never had to worry about ashy elbows.) And she declines the imperative to become a wife and mother, though she's delighted with her sister's daughter. 
               Negroland tells old truths that shouldn't be too scary to tell; it tells old secrets that deserve to be freed from the power of secrecy. If Jefferson's grandmothers were proud to the point of snobbishness, well, they had much to be proud of. Her own reward for the awkwardness of being the only black child in her class was an education befitting her intelligence. The candor, integrity, and tenderness of this memoir show that while Jefferson was being taught manners, she also acquired character, which is always a beautiful thing.

Monday, August 31, 2015


Sextant: A Young Man's Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World's Oceans
David Barrie (2014, William Morrow)

In 1973, David Barrie sailed from Maine to England aboard the thirty-five foot sloop Saecwen (Anglo-Saxon for 'sea queen'.) Along the way, Barrie, then nineteen, learned celestial navigation from the ship's owner, Colin McMullen, a retired Royal Navy captain. Today's satellite-aided navigation was a decade and more in the future, so, for three and a half weeks, the sun, moon, and stars were the only way they had of knowing where they were. 
The story of the crossing is full of small adventures, like trying not to get hit by larger vessels, and surfing before gale-force winds that threw up awe-inspiring waves. Excerpts from Barrie's journal also recall the small annoyances of life at sea: the tight quarters; the lack of exercise, fresh food, and sleep; and, sometimes, the boredom. Yet no two days were exactly alike: "People sometimes complain of the monotony of the sea, but it is, with the sky, the most changeful of all natural spectacles. Its surface, brushed by the wind, whether gently or with violence, presents patterns of of infinite variety, and its color too undergoes astonishing transformations, depending on factors like the time of day, the depth of water, and the weather."

The voyage of the Saecwen is the framework for a longer, larger story, of how heroic mariners of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries explored and mapped the Pacific Ocean. Captain Cook and Captain Bligh are familiar enough names, but to read about what they actually did, and lived through, is thrilling. Barrie also piques our interest in Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who sailed around the world by way of the Falklands and Tahiti; George Vancouver, who mapped the northern Pacific areas that bear his name; Robert FitzRoy, who, in addition to captaining Charles Darwin's voyages on the Beagle, developed the use of the barometer as a weather prediction device; and many others.

The tools and methods these men used were being developed at the same time. The sextant reached its modern form in 1731, and a timepiece useable at sea was tested in the 1760s. In the North Atlantic, Barrie learns to fix the Saecwen's latitude by measuring how high the sun is at noon; if he also knows that it's half past two at Greenwich at that moment, he can establish her longitude as well. The first-generation chronometers were not reliable enough on their own to assist in mapping the Pacific – some mariners traveled with a dozen or more. Sextant readings of the angle between the moon and the sun or certain fixed stars (once predictive tables had been developed and published) also helped explorers fix crucial longitude readings for the islands of the Pacific.

Facility with the sextant has begun to decline in the age of the satellite; American naval officers don't learn celestial navigation unless they are specialists. Of course, electronic systems run the risk of all sorts of failures, from jamming equipment to sunspots, so it is probably a bad idea to be exclusively dependent on GPS. More than that, there's the grandeur of the thing: "When I recall learning how to handle a sextant all those years ago, I see myself, a transient speck of life, fixing my position on the surface of our small planet by taking the measure of vast, unimaginably distant suns whose lives are measured in billions of years. The chastening contrast between their calm majesty and my fretful pettiness was overwhelming."

Email publication, September 1 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County:

Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle
Kristen Green (2015, HarperCollins)

    In the fall of 1958, thousands of Virginia schoolchildren had a semester off from school, while the state's governor promulgated 'massive resistance' against Federal court orders for racial integration. Over the winter, the state backed down and reopened schools, admitting the first black students, but the following fall, Prince Edward County began the most massive resistance yet. Twenty-one schools, white and black, were shuttered in defiance of court-ordered integration. The shutdown would persist through four years, leaving some three thousand students without public schooling.

    For their own children, of course, the patriarchs of the county prepared a soft landing, in the form of Prince Edward Academy. Kristen Green is a second-generation product of the school, and a granddaughter of one of its founders. She was staggered to learn that the white citizens of Farmville had been thinking about a segregation academy since 1954, when the Supreme Court announced the decision in Brown v. Board of Education – a case in which the black high school students of Prince Edward County had been litigants, with the assistance of the Virginia NAACP.

    Green attended the academy, as her mother had before her; but only as an adult, after moving about the country and establishing a career in journalism, did she seek to investigate its origins. Her consciousness is sharpened by the fact that she is married to a brown-skinned man, and they have two daughters. Bringing the family back to Virginia to be closer to Green's parents and brothers meant questioning and confronting some beloved ghosts.

    But what, really, can they tell her? When she interviews one of the Academy's founders, he brags about using public school resources to get the new school off the ground. “We never did let the children miss a year.” He is thoroughly unreconstructed, with nothing, in his eyes, to apologize for. The other children, the children who missed four years of school or had to leave the county, are not his concern. Green's high school history teacher tells her, “I'm just so tired of this subject I could scream. I am tired of rehashing this thing. I just want to move on.”

    Green does not have much more luck with the black citizens she'd like to ask about those days. Many of them are gone, for one thing. Barbara Johns, who instigated the walkout that touched of Farmville's part of the Brown case, moved to her uncle's home in Montgomery, Alabama, to finish high school. The black woman who cooked and cleaned for Green's parents and grandparents sent her only daughter to live with relatives out of state, and the daughter never came back. Green observes, “The separation of children from their parents echoed the indignities of slavery and the irreparable harm done when the closest of relationships were suddenly severed.”

    Irreparable harm, indeed. Prince Edward County's literacy rate lags behind the rest of the state's down to this day. The academy now admits students of all races, but it still drains the public system of resources. Green shows us her own path from ignorance to awareness to a sort of painful guilt, but this is not work that she can do for anyone else, and in any case, guilt is not a fruitful end product. It doesn't do anybody any good unless it leads to greater awareness of what's going on today, and a greater willingness to think of all the children.

Published by email, August 1, 2015

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Flash Boys

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, 2014)

   My grandmother used to say that her favorite grandchild was whichever one she was looking at. I feel that way about Michael Lewis's books. They are generally great, and Flash Boys is amazing. It tells a story that could very easily have gone unreported, but which has undeniable implications for the whole financial world. (I'm being a tad hyperbolic: in footnotes, he mentions a couple of other books that I know I'll want to look for.)

   Flash Boys is structured around the story of Brad Katsuyama, a trader with the Royal Bank of Canada. His job was to take large institutional blocks of stock that a client wanted to trade and break them up so that they could meet the market at a fair price. In 2007, he noticed that the price information he saw on his computer screen wasn't stable enough to work with. As soon as he hit 'Buy', most of the offers at the price he was looking at disappeared, and he'd wind up paying more than he intended.

   Was it a problem with his hardware? No. With his software? No, again. It was with the markets themselves; and that plural noun is a telling detail. The New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq became public, for-profit corporations in 2005. “Once competition was introduced, the exchanges multiplied. By early 2008 there were thirteen different public exchanges, most of them in Northern New Jersey.” All this activity was mediated by computers, of course. Fiber optic cables carried signals at two-thirds the speed of light, and trades were executed in a few thousandths of a second, with no further human intervention.

   What Katsuyama, and Lewis, learned is that some traders ('high frequency traders', or HFT) were working so much faster than the official average price that showed up in RBC's offices that they could run ahead like the big bad wolf reaching Grandma's cottage. They'd find out about RBC's need for ten thousand shares of AnyCorp at forty dollars each by offering to sell one hundred shares at $39.99; within a fraction of a second, they could corner the market on any shares under $40.05 and sell them to RBC with a nice little premium of a few hundred dollars for themselves. When the HFT computers are in the same room in New Jersey as the exchange's computer, they can easily trade rings around a brokerage on Wall Street whose information is always fifteen thousandths of a second slow. And even if their margins are measured in a few pennies or dimes per hundred dollars, this adds up to billions of dollars a year.

   The proliferation of markets, including 'dark rooms' or private exchanges set up within brokerages, only encouraged this scalping. As the name implies, dark rooms operate under rules that are opaque to investors, and indeed to regulators. That would be fine if they were truly honest brokers, but the evidence is clear that they usually aren't. Worse yet, “[E]ven if the Wall Street bank resisted the temptation to trade for itself against its own customers, there was virtually no chance they resisted the temptation to sell access to the dark pool to high-frequency traders.”

   The people who helped Brad Katsuyama figure this out came up with a high-tech solution. They wired their computers to transmit orders to arrive at all the public exchanges at the exact same moment, depriving the scalpers of their time advantage. This system, dubbed 'Thor', put the RBC traders back in the position of making the trades that appeared to be on offer.

   In a meeting with an arm of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Katsuyama had a startling experience: an SEC staffer told him there was something wrong with his new system: “What you are doing is not fair to high-frequency traders. You're not letting them get out of the way.” In other words, Thor was forcing traders to honor bids that had not been offered in good faith. Another staffer, an older man, argued back: “If they don't want to be on the offer they shouldn't be there at all.” The SEC hardly ever argues like that in public, but clearly they were not going to take the lead in finding a solution to this problem, especially considering how many people move from the SEC into lucrative jobs with high frequency trading outfits.

   The game is well and truly rigged, and we hardly dare to know how much; the HFT business works in response to the last set of regulations, from 2007, but that's just the latest in a seemingly infinite series. Every new regulation makes new loopholes. In 2012, Katsuyama and his team had a radical idea: start their own exchange, with a simpler and more transparent structure. He left RBC and assembled a crew of people with expertise on all sides of the business. By the end of 2013, IEX was taking orders, and they are now processing about one per cent of the market.

    After reading Flash Boys, I can see why index funds are so much likelier to make money than actively managed funds – every single time a fund manager goes into the market, he's the prey. You can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game. Now, however, there is literally one honest broker out there. My individual trades weigh nothing, but I dare to hope that the people who run my IRA funds are getting fair prices on IEX. If not, why not?

Emailed July 1, 2015