James Garfield, America’s first hipster president, died this day in 1881. Garfield, shown below at an artisanal vodka bar, had been on his way to a Williams College reunion when he was shot by George Steinbrenner, who had heard Garfield was about to give the Red Sox a special tax exemption for players with beards most resembling his own. “YOLO!” the stricken president was heard to cry as he fell, mortally wounded.

James Garfield

Bud Yorkin, 1926-2015

Bud Yorkin died. He’s most famous for his long partnership with Norman Lear, which brought us All In the Family, The Jeffersons, and other TV series. But he’ll always have a fond space in my heart for when I saw The Thief Who Came to Dinner, which he directed and produced.

I was 11 then, and we lived in Upland, California. The local theater tended to do double-features, and my hazy memory is that Thief was on a bill with The Poseidon Adventure. But the dashing computer nerd, stealing jewelry while sneaking in to use his old employer’s mainframe to tie the local chess columnist in knots (the lead character always left a chess piece and a move, you see), left a deep impression.

It was a heck of a little movie, really. Henry Mancini did the score, and the cast was remarkably deep: Ryan O’Neal, Jacqueline Bisset, Warren Oates, Ned Beatty, Gregory Sierra, Jill Clayburgh, Austin Pendleton, Michael Murphy, John Hillerman.


This morning, as I was driving to work, I was listening to the traffic reports on the radio (as one does). Which is how I heard of an overturned big rig, that had been carrying… Bees. To which I thought, “That’ll give you bees.” Here’s why.

Lights! Camera!

Getty Images has announced a new method where a blogger can embed an image from their library, without charge, as long as you let them caption it.

So, here… Have a picture of two Goons and a buffoon:

(Since their caption isn’t terribly detailed, from left-to-right that would be Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan, and Charles Mountbatten-Windsor, in 1973.)


Let me tell you a tale.

It was my senior year in college, and I was in the living room of the cool multi-room “apartment” some friends had in one of the dorms. (That would be Doug Frankenfeld, David Bloom, Dan Nimmo, & Andrew Chittick, all living in Harwood Court.)

Anyway, Andrew had a subscription to The Economist, and I was flipping through it one day.

I read a book review of a selection of James Joyce’s papers. It had been edited by an Irish don at the University of Cork whom the Economist described with delicious hauteur as, “undistinguished even in Irish academic circles.” Seems when Joyce had died during WWII, somehow his papers wandered back to the Irish National Library in Dublin, where they were promptly put under seal at his behest for 50 years.

That wasn’t the fun part, though. The fun part was, said Irish don thought Joyce’s papers should be put under seal for an additional 50 years, because he felt their publication would be, “irreparably damaging to the body of modern literary criticism.”

That got me to wondering. What on earth would be that damaging? That Joyce, Pound, Eliot, et al. were all sleeping with each others’ wives? Nah — we already knew that. That they were plagiarizing from each other? Nah — that’s known, too.

About the only thing I could think of was a letter that said something along the lines of:

Dear Ezra:

Can ye believe they’re buying this bullshit? I write a complete piece of crap, slap the title “Ulysses” on it, and they’re hailing it as a “masterpiece of the 20th Century.” Balls! Just shows that literary critics will never admit they don’t understand something, no matter how incoherently you write it. Put in just enough erudition to tease them, and they’ll go hunting for the “real meaning” of a thing for decades.

Tell you what — I’m going to spend the next ten years working on something I’ll call “Work in Progress,” and then publish it under a relatively innocuous title… “Finnegans Wake,” or some similar twaddle. I’ll try to type it myself, blind as a bat though I may be, and get my illiterate secretary — have you met him? Beckett? — to put it in manuscript form. The bastards will never admit they don’t understand a word.

Love and kisses,



OK, fast forward to 2005 or so. Twenty years later.

I’m between contracts at The Client, and on a 100-day break. I think to myself, “Self… It’s been a long time since I saw anything about the Joyce papers. Shouldn’t they be out by now? Or shouldn’t there have been a decision to lock them up again?”

Such is the world we live in today that I went online to the National Library of Ireland. I couldn’t find the book. I went to the library of University College Cork, Ireland. I couldn’t find the book. I couldn’t find any relevant mention online of the Joyce papers, and the attendant foofaraw.

Hm. What was the name of that Irish don? Only one way to find out…

So I trundled on down to the University of Washington library, where they have a bound set of The Economist on the shelf. I start pulling down the most appropriate years. Turns out The Economist ran semi-annual indexes back then, so I look in them for listings of reviews of books about James Joyce.


Now I’m getting angry. Feeble though my memory may be, I know it’s not that bad. I know I read that piece.

I start leafing through every individual issue, looking at the book review sections.

I found it.

March 30, 1985.

The review ends, “The publication date — the Monday after this issue of The Economist is published — seems entirely appropriate.”

Bastards. They nailed me. It was an April Fool’s joke. Not as good, perhaps, as George Plimpton’s “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” (which, curiously enough, was published at the same time — April, 1985), but… damn.

They nailed me.

I tell you this story for two reasons:

* It was a great hoax, and deserves more coverage than it has received.

* When I find out I’m wrong, even when I’ve been telling something as an amusing anecdote for twenty years — if I find out, I’ll say so. I’ll also be quite diligent in finding the facts, sooner or later.

The piece was written anonymously — and a hat tip to you, anonymous Economist scribe. It is, as mentioned, not in any index. So here is “Beginnagin” (I leave it as an exercise to notice the differences between the “quotes” I used above, and the actual piece):


From The Economist, March 30, 1985, page 94:


AFTER THE WAKE: A Selection from the Papers of James Joyce in the National Library of Ireland
Edited, and with a commentary by Dermot O’Grady.
The University College Press, Cork.
185 pages. I£15

It has long been a source of annoyance to Joyce scholars that the National Library of Ireland should have imposed a seal on those private papers of James Joyce that came into its possession shortly after the second world war. These papers, consisting of several thousand letters to and from the harassed and impecunious author, a great many unpaid bills and what appears to be the first draft of a long poem intended to be the successor to “Finnegans Wake”, were retrieved from his apartment in Paris a few weeks after Joyce’s death in January, 1941, by his honorary secretary, Mr Paul Léon. Mr Léon handed the papers to the Irish Free State’s ambassador to Vichy, with the instruction that they should be deposited in the National Library under a 50-year seal if he should fail to survive the war.

Mr Léon perished at the hands of the Gestapo and the papers were duly sent to Dublin, since when they have languished in 16 metal boxes in Kildare Street, uncatalogued and unread until Professor O’Grady was allowed access to them. The senior tutor in Celtic studies in University College, Cork, he has hitherto enjoyed a career undistinguished even by Irish academic standards and it is difficult to imagine why he should have been chosen as the recipient of this honour.

The seal on the papers had been imposed by the library on the advice of Constantine Curran, a schoolboy acquaintance of Joyce’s, whose adherence to the Roman Catholic faith was steadfast, and was not due to expire until 1991. This earlier examination of the papers was allowed apparently on the personal intercession of Dr Garret FitzGerald, the taoiseach (prime minister). He has opened a hornet’s nest.

Professor O’Grady is exceedingly parsimonious in his quotation from the correspondence. This is not surprising, given the incendiary quality of many letters, particularly those written to Joyce by his wife, Nora Barnacle, and by the sensitive nature of the private exchanges, previously unsuspected, which passed between him and Eamonn de Valera. Joyce was formally invited to meet de Valera, shortly after the latter’s installation as president of the executive council of the Irish Free State in 1932, and answered in most unrepublican terms. “Not even an escort of battleships and the loan of a bulletproof vest,” he wrote, “could induce me to set foot in your Free-fire [sic] State, nor would I wish to put in jeopardy the pension which has been so generously been bestowed upon me by the British at the behest of Sir Edmund Gosse. I notice, incidentally, that you persist in the impudence of depicting on your postage stamps a map of the whole island of Ireland although your write [sic] runs in only three-quarters of it.”

The letters written to Joyce by his wife are, as previously suspected, highly pornographic. Professor O’Grady does not sully his pages with more than the barest allusion to their content. Joyce was several times away from Nora Barnacle on what he alleged were business trips and she was in the habit of sending him, at his own request, what he called “dirty letters”. Professor O’Grady makes it abundantly clear that large stretches of the Penelope episode of “Ulysses” (commonly known as Molly Bloom’s soliloquy) were the work not of James Joyce, but of his wife. The passages quoted show convincingly why Constantine Curran, after he had examined the papers for the library in 1951, passionately pleaded for their destruction. In his introduction, Professor O’Grady also calls for continued suppression of the papers for a further period of 50 years beyond 1991.

His argument appears to rest on his contention that to allow the publication of Joyce’s comments on his own work and on the work of other modernist masters, particularly Eliot and Pound, would deal literary scholarship a blow from which it would be a long time recovering. This is a tendentious argument, and the standard of Professor O’Grady’s own scholarship falls well below mediocrity. His text is by no means free of error (Chapelizod, for example, is not in County Wicklow), and the bibliography is grossly inadequate and there is no index. The whole publication is shoddily printed and bound. The publication date — the Monday after this issue of The Economist is published — seems entirely appropriate.

Samuel Johnson on James Altucher (urban legend dept.)

The quote is usually attributed to Samuel Johnson, though it appears to be an urban legend:

“Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.”

Which is to say…

Have you ever read the internet email joke, “So, you want a day off?

It appears Mr. Altucher has. Because today, his humour column in the Financial Times does a startlingly similar breakdown of a friend’s US$1 million bonus as “a vice-president at a top-tier bank.”

Again, just like last week, it’s within the realm of possibility that Mr. Altucher doesn’t intend his writing to be humorous, and that he’s being in deadly earnest over the whole matter. But if the “Mike” character in the column isn’t a creation for exaggeration, but a real friend — real enough that Mr. Altucher was one of, “a select few friends” and family invited to Mike’s wedding back when he was of means closer to the median… well, if so, then it seems that for a man who only a week ago was complaining about things getting needlessly personal, then he himself is revealing a large number of very personal financial details of Mike.

For the sake of giving a column a hook. A derivative hook at that.

Some friend.

Pulled up from comments

Like Harry Chapin used to say, “The excitement continues to build.”

Mr. Altucher replies(NB, 2013: In comments to a LiveJournal post, the original source for this), in a thread on my recent post. He’s in italics this time.


“the fact remains that your stats have nothing to do with my article.”

You make a statistical claim — that, “There’s no way,” an investment of a certain amount of money will see a return. You do not support this claim from any source. When evidence is presented from a reputable source that your claim is factually incorrect, you then say that the evidence is irrelevant.

This is somewhat like saying that the sound barrier will never be broken, and no one should waste their time investing in such tomfoolery. When an eyewitness report from Chuck Yeager is brought in, you deem it to be irrelevant.

“Then you decide to get personal in order to make your point.”

You wrote your article in personal terms. Using the Winer Defense (if one comments on the personal aspects, it’s business; if one comments on the business aspects, it’s personal) is only either a) an intentional evasion on your part, or b) an unintentional failure to recognize just how personal your own writing is, and then failing to acknowledge the consequences.

The Altucher Chronicles

Like I said, that column by Mr. Altucher in the FT made a number of strange claims.

So I wrote a letter to the Editor of the FT about one of them, cc’ing Mr. Altucher’s email as given at the bottom of his column. Mr. Altucher replied.

Hilarity ensued.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m in italics. Mr. Altucher is in bold.



In what I presume to be the FT‘s humour column, Mr. Altucher writes,

“First, and foremost, (college is) too expensive. To send a kid to college you need from $200,000 to $400,000. That’s insane. There’s no way the incremental advantage they get from having a diploma will ever pay back that amount.”

In 2002, the US Census Bureau reported the following:

“As shown in Figure 3, for full-time, year-round workers, the 40-year synthetic earnings estimates are about $1.0 million (in 1999 dollars) for high school dropouts, while completing high school would increase earnings by another quarter-million dollars (to $1.2 million). People who attended some college (but did not earn a degree) might expect work-life earnings of about $1.5 million, and slightly more for people with associates degrees ($1.6 million). Over a work-life, individuals who have a bachelor’s degree would earn on average $2.1 million — about one third more than workers who did not finish college, and nearly twice as much as workers with only a high school diploma. A master’s degree holder tops a bachelor’s degree holder at $2.5 million. Doctoral ($3.4 million) and professional degree holders ($4.4 million) do even better.”

So we see a BA holder gets an incremental advantage of $900,000, for a ROI of at least 125%. Would Mr. Altucher’s clients were so lucky.


Hal O’Brien


Those stats mean nothing. Its what a self-initiating proactive person can do instead of college (as opposed to what the avg person can potentially do) that I’m interested in.

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile


Ah. And all your children are from Lake Wobegon, and thus, above average?

Interesting. This might be a nice one for Mr. Taleb. Someone who insists that black swans are the norm (and not rare).


I’m only saying if someone is proactive they can find better things to do than waste their parents’ money. I’m not saying my kids are special. No need to get personal.

Sent via BlackBerry from T-Mobile



The entire premise of your column was that this is what you personally are doing with your children. I quote:

“What I said was that I had no intention of sending my kids to college. I was dead serious.”

…and that the remainder of your column were your reasons for this.

If this is not what you meant (and merely what you wrote)… well, you need to brush up on your skills.


Just because I have “no injtention” doesn’t mean that’s what will happen.


Then, congratulations! I am laughing; Your name is the successor to Martin Lukes as the new FT humour columnist; and I claim my five pounds!


Updates if events warrant.

Did I mention that he kept writing to me directly, and that I kept cc’ing the Editor? No? Might be interesting.

FT running humour?

After the incarceration of Martin Lukes, the FT appears to have a new humour columnist, James Altucher. I’ll gloss over the many strange claims he makes today, but this one may be of special interest to my writerly friends. He’s explaining why college is a bad deal:

“I have high school and college kids working for me who are making over $50,000 a year from writing gigs on the internet. Scour Craigslist for opportunities, your favourite blogs, or websites related to your favourite interests. Companies are dying for good content. Create your own blog, get yourself noticed, build relationships with other content companies and communities.”

So, dear readers… Who are these high school (and college, too!) kids who are making (“over”!) $50,000 a year from blogging? From which markets? And still keeping down investment banking jobs? Remember — they’re not just making that much money for writing, they’re working for him, too. (At a domain that has no publicly available web site.)

Inquiring minds want to know.

Speculate freely.