Greetings, Rostrum readers! Things are getting even more bizarre with Donald Trump. The Donald is contemplating pardoning himself for any charges special investigator Robert Mueller might bring, assuming he doesn’t fire him first. In this week’s podcast, we speak to someone who was thinking about the issue of the self-pardon twenty years ago, when Bill Clinton was in the White House and Trump was still married to Marla Maples: legal scholar Brian Kalt, who wrote the definitive article on the subject for the Yale Law Journal.
Similarly bizarre, and perhaps more concerning, is the persistently low levels of volatility in the market. Even more alarming, is the amount of rationalization on Wall Street for this phenomenon. With reports that the shorts are all capitulating, an accident seems waiting to happen and with this much short vol it could be a wicked one. From the latest Octavian Report, we have Boaz Weinstein, who’s on the other side of the trade, give his thoughts and offer concomitant opportunity, including some names to play it.
Well before Syria, Russia has had a long relationship with Islam and power politics in the Middle East and Caucasus. To understand Putin, you must understand these roots and who better a guide than Leo Tolstoy via HADJI MURAT, the tale of the real-life, eponymous warrior who found himself caught in between and betraying both sides, Russian and his native Chechen, during Tsar Nicholas I’s imperial conquest of the Caucasus. True to Tolstoy’s style, the plot never salivates over a dramatic surrender or catastrophic battle. The novella’s kaleidoscopic view of peasants, mountaineers, Tsars, soldiers, and socialites alike living their daily lives feels revelatory in a quieter way. The narrator opens with a famously heavy-handed metaphor relating a tartar thistle to the lonely demise of the book’s protagonist, but don’t fall into Tolstoy’s trap and assume you understand Murat from the get go — you’ll only vindicate the author’s worst fears about what an impatient world of narrow demands can do to an earnest man. With every new character that ogles his captivating life comes a reminder that Murat’s persona will be fervently sampled by others for their pleasure, but almost always from a calculated emotional distance. Genuine companions come few and far between.
Does the lonely tartar thistle deserve such an indulgently artistic interpretation? Tolstoy was not entirely sure. Permanently altered by an austere Christian mysticism in old age, the world-famous author had by this time renounced his most famous works as vanity — Hadji Murat had to be published posthumously to avoid making Tolstoy look like a hypocrite. Why write it? On one hand, Tolstoy was an egomaniac: this may have been his final, vainglorious attempt to outdo Pushkin at his own game and become Russia’s undisputed best. (He is reputed to have said, on completing the book, “The old son of a bitch still has it!”) Or, perhaps, there was something about Murat’s unfulfilled dream to return to his loving family that seemed as resistant to humanity’s selfishness as a bruised, lonesome thistle growing in fallow farmland. Tolstoy, also caught between two sides of a war between the artistic and the ascetic, apparently had to hazard one last attempt to return home to the novel, even if it meant a little betrayal.
Betrayal — of other people and of oneself — is a core theme in Federico Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA. “Sylvia! Sylvia!” Filmmakers will probably never uncover a more revealing scene of self-questioning desire than Marcello, played by Marcello Mastroianni, wading through Rome’s Trevi Foundation after the deluxe beauty of Anita Ekberg’s Sylvia. The film is dynamic and disparate in tone; the picture is as dark a pilgrimage through the post-war café society of Rome as it is a bright one. Our protagonist, Marcello, is a gossip column writer chasing skirts and higher aspirations on the beautifully shot black and white streets of the Eternal City. He belies his insecurity and sadness with the same comforts most of Western Europe got by with in the psychological aftermath of World War 2 and their sudden loss of place in the world: philosophy, carousal, and high fashion. In short, the sweet life.
Be warned, Fellini’s cinematography is hypnotic. A filmmaker who some have argued is far more of an author than a director, he provides a rich display of visual symbols, allegories, and ideas for his audience ranging from expressionist to neo-realist — critics could write about this movie for years (and they have!). But that doesn’t mean you should sit down for La Dolce Vita with a notebook; in fact, don’t fight the movie’s spell the first time around, Fellini will win. Look at the shining costumes, listen to the magical blend of soft curiosity and celebration in Nino Rota’s winsome soundtrack, and take in all the splendor of Fellini’s world before its characters realize that the real party ended long ago. Marcello tries time and time again to break out of that endless cycle of sweetness to take away something permanent and meaningful, but even the people he admires for establishing material, secure lives frequently turn out to be unhappy — what to do? Just watch the ending, every Marcello in the world could use a dose of its endearing salvation.
The upward yearnings Marcello suffers from were not confined to his Italy. They’ve driven American to the most literal of heights in our achieving space program. But not all dreams of flight end with safe landings. NASA put mission risk for the SPACE SHUTTLE COLUMBIA at less than one in two hundred before the spacecraft’s destruction on February 1, 2003. Ten minutes after reentering the atmosphere at 8:43 a.m., wind and heat began damaging the shuttle’s left wing, which had lost several heat-resistant tiles to a launch accident two weeks earlier. The unrelenting force of entering the atmosphere at 23 times the speed of sound soon destroyed the entire wing, and by 8:58 a.m. pieces of debris began falling to the ground in West Texas. By 9 a.m. the shuttle has disintegrated and seven astronauts had died. A public investigation published six months afterwards condemned “NASA culture” as responsible for disaster: work schedules that moved dangerously fast to appease congress, engineers pressured to ignore warning signs, even refusing to classify the damage to the left wing on launch as an in-flight anomaly. Richard P. Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, wrote that “NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product to the point of fantasy.” America’s storied space agency held off on launches for over two years to lick its wounds.
NASA put the space shuttle Discovery’s risk of catastrophic failure at one in one hundred as they prepared for their first launch since the Columbia disaster on July 26, 2005 — twelve years ago today. Engineers, administrators, and local residents of Houston all celebrated a successful takeoff and — thirteen days later — breathed a collective sigh of relief on the return. A suite of technical issues still plagued Discovery’s mission and led many experts in the field to grimly admit that, although the space shuttle was the space vehicle of today, it should not be the one of the future. For NASA, however, the landing took them a step closer to regaining their public confidence and reminding its onlookers that no disaster should sour a fresh attempt for too long.
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