Review: Wall Street Under Oath

book cover "Wall Street Under Oath"

Wall Street Under Oath

Years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 banking disaster, I first heard of Ferdinand Pecora, the lawyer that led the Senate investigations into the shady dealings that brought on the 1929 crash and the Great Depression, and the book he wrote about that experience, “Wall Street Under Oath: the story of our modern money changers”. Pecora’s name popped up in another book I read recently, “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, he was the New York prosecutor sent after the Minsky brothers. I tried to find a copy of this book when I first heard of it, I like to own the books I read, but I only found two copies and they were offered at $500 each. Even though it was reissued in 1973 no other copies turned up. With the “Great Recession” stirring interest in the banking wrongdoings I would have expected that every dusty copy sitting on a shelf somewhere would come on the market. It did not happen so when I was reminded of Pecora and went looking again I compromised and, with a friend in a university and interlibrary loans I managed to get a copy.

Trial lawyers seem to be good writers. Pecora is no exception. The introduction is a little stuffy but it still floored me. Here are the first three short paragraphs.

“Under the surface of the governmental regulation of the securities market, the same forces that produce the riotous speculative excesses of the “wild bull market” of 1929 still give evidences of their existence and influence. Though repressed for the present, it cannot be doubted that given a suitable opportunity they would spring back into pernicious activity.

Frequently we are told that this regulation has been throttling the country’s prosperity. Bitterly hostile was Wall Street to the enactment of the regulatory legislation. it now looks forward to the day when it shall, as it hopes, resume the reins of its former power.

That its leaders are imminently fitted to guide our nation, and that they would make a much better job of it than any other body of men, Wall Street does not for a moment doubt. Indeed, if you now hearken to the oracles of The Street, you will hear now and then that the money-changers have been much maligned. You will be told that the whole group of high-minded men, innocent of social or economic wrongdoing, were expelled from the temple because of the excesses of a few. You will be assured that they had nothing to do with the misfortunes that overtook the country in 1929-1933; that they were simply scapegoats, sacrificed on the altar of unreasonable public opinion to satisfy the wrath of a howling mob blindly seeking victims.”

Pecora organizes the book according to the nature of the “crimes”. I use the quotes because although some of the practices were not technically illegal they are definitely a violation of any fiduciary responsibility the bank officers had to their customers and stockholders. Almost ninety years later the amount of money they mercilessly extracted from the trusting public is still staggering. Even more impressive than the amount of money is the arrogance of the bankes. Pecora illustrates this with a nice selection of transcripts from the testimony bankers gave under oath. If we are to believe that they were as ignorant of basic banking practices and of what was going on around them then we have to believe it was God’s work that they made so much money when the nation went broke.

The only thing that bothered me about the book had to do with the passage of time since it was written. When Pecora wrote that it was unnecessary to detail a person’s story because it was in the headlines for the last few years I wanted pull him out of his grave and tell him that I never heard of the guy. I needed to know details of the story. Since I could never get it from Pecora now I have another bit of research to distract myself with.

The official report from the investigations are online at

http://www.scribd.com/doc/73235213/Pecora-Commission-Report-Stock-Exchange-Practices-Report-1934

It is much dryer than Pecora’s book but so much easier to find.

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Review: Technology of the Ancient World

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Technology of the Ancient World

Henry Hodges’ book “Technology of the Ancient World” is a fascinating look at the origins of the modern worlds technology. Did humans first chip rocks to get a sharp edge or did they first twist plant fibers together to make a thread by rolling them between palm and thigh? Chipped rocks leave evidence that we can see but plant fibers rotted away thousands of years ago. The story of halting progress interrupted by times of conservative malaise is fascinating although, as Hodges points out, there are holes in our knowledge. Without trying the book shows that our love of vivid colors and beauty is ageless and, contrary to what we are sometimes told, world trade has been with us as long as we have been us. Fascinating as this book is it is badly flawed.

It was first published in 1970 and was written using research even older than that. I am not concerned that some of the gaps that Hodges mentions may have been filled by now but by the author’s, by 1970s’ society’s, dismissal of the world outside the “West”. When is the last time you heard of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt referred to as part of “the West”? Outside of the founding of “Western Civilization” I would guess the answer would have to be never. Once Hodges has examined the classical “Western Civilization”, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome, he moves on the the rest of the world, the “Barbarians”. First he looks at northern Europe where he admits that some technology outstrips that of Rome. Roman ships, built for the calm Mediterranean pale in comparison to the ships built by the “barbarians” of the north. He also mentions several innovations from the north, great leaps, that never took hold like roller bearings for cart wheels. He attributes this to a failure of the northern people and never offers conquest by Rome as a possible reason the technology was not adopted more widely.

The people of northern Europe got much better treatment than the few pages devoted to other areas of the world. He claims that India imported bronze technology from “the West” but admits that there skills at casting metal were more advanced. We are told that China and the West both imported the composite bow from the Eurasian nomads but that the Eurasian nomads simple dispersed technology, they did not originate it. I am tempted to pull out my copy of David Hackett Fischer’s “Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought” (1971) and look for examples of logical fallacies he might have drawn from this book. The flaws I found here have also renewed my desire to read Edward W. Said’s “Orientalism” (1979).

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Review: One Righteous Man, Samuel Battle, shattering the color line in New York

book cover: One Righteous Man

Samuel Battle and the shattering of the color line in New York

Samuel Battle led an interesting life in interesting times. Arthur Browne’s, “One Righteous Man” a biography of Battle, the first African American on the unified greater New York City police department impressive even though I had a few reservations about it. Born one generation away from slavery Battle grew as a bit of what would later be called a juvenile delinquent but managed to put that behind him as a young adult when he traveled to New York in search of opportunity. He found that the color of his skin meant that doors were shut to him in the north just as they were back home. Battle makes his own opportunities and after several underpaid dead end jobs he finds opportunity as a porter at Grand Central Station. With a secure job he finds a wife and starts to build a life. When the community comes looking for a candidate to become the first black man on the city police force he risks his security and takes the challenge. What he managed to achieve was so incredible that Langston Hughes was commissioned to write his biography.

Browne’s writing is clear and easy to read, like a popular history should be. My biggest concern was, is, could this be more memoir than history? The wealth of Browne’s sources seem to be Battle’s own words, Langston Hughes’ unpublished manuscript and an oral history project a graduate student recorded with Battle. Arthur Brown makes good use of these resources along with Harlem and city newspapers to flesh out not just Battle’s story but it seems, sanitized. It strikes me as disingenuous that the biggest problems Battle had integrating the police force was the silent treatment and sleeping in the attic. I suspect that the baton swinging cops of the 1910s would have been more actively outspoken. Browne includes the story of integrating Harlem and the New York City fire department along with Battle’s story. He also gives us a look at the wider story of African American history in the early 20th century whenever it is needed to fully comprehend the times.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is the name dropping, if it is fair to call it that. If pressed I could come up with some people that don’t show up in Battle’s story but he managed to meet and get acquainted with such a range of celebrities and power brokers, from heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who did not tip, to Eleanor Roosevelt, who deeply impressed Battle by simply giving a glass of water to a black woman speaker at a benefit. That insight into the impact a small kindness can make alone made the book more than worth reading.

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Review: Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past

Inquiry Based Lessons in U.S. History

Book cover Inquiry Based Lessons in U.S. History

“Inquiry-based Lessons in U.S. History : Decoding the Past” is the second middle school history plan I requested to review the book through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. I have to repeat that I am not a teacher, never have been and, at the grade level this book is for I never want to be. I do have a degree in history, I have been studying American history for a long time, and have grandchildren, children, and personal experience in middle school. I will do my best to evaluate only the parts of the book that I can.

I was really impressed with the first book but this one is a disappointment. First, and this is not a problem with just this book, trying to covering over 500 years worth of history in one class, less than 160 contact hours, is silly. Packing that much content into one course guarantees information overload, nothing will be learned. This is how they taught history when I was in school, I don’t even remember the class. Each chapter in this book could, and have, filled hundreds volumes of scholarly history. Why not narrow the range, of focus on a topic that can be covered in a year and allow the students to learn some skills that will serve them in whatever they study? But that is an issue with the system, the book is not at fault it is merely trying to achieve the impossible goal regulators have set.

That is not to say this book does not have problems. Many of the lessons ask the students to draw a picture to illustrate their understanding. Seriously? This is not second grade. These students have basic communication skills. They need practice writing. One or two “art” assignments that connect well to the subject matter would be acceptable, but as someone who can not even trace a straight line, by middle school I was ready to put away childish things. One of my favorite authors when I was these students age. Robert Heinlein, explained that when he wrote his “juveniles” he never talked down to the readers. It is my feeling that this lesson plan, most of the time, does talk down to the students.

One of the book’s strong points is its use of the Library of Congress’ Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tool for investigating contemporary engravings and political cartoons. “Reading” pictures was not something I was introduced to until college and it is an important skill for developing critical thinking skills and your attention to detail. Unfortunately early in the book, lesson one of chapter two, the url leading to the sources did not work. I was able to find them but any teacher using this book needs to be forewarned. Two of the questions the students were asked to answer from the engravings were about gender roles. Is that an idea we want to promote in middle school in the 21st century? Instead of asking them to identify men’s work and women’s work how about just identifying the work being done? Instead of separating the work into male / female roles why not ask about the technology, the tools being used?

Slavery is the most divisive subject in U.S. history and I was ready to blast the authors for this untrue, illogical, statement, “For Whites in the slave states, the election of Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, to the presidency, signaled and immediate threat. Compromise, an essential feature of American politics, proved impossible and several Southern states immediately drew up declarations of secession modeled after the Declaration of Independence.” That sounds like an attempt at compromise was made which is untrue. Southern states were attacking U.S. military installations and issuing declarations of secession before Lincoln even reached Washington City. Just how did compromise prove impossible? At first I thought this was the author’s bias coming through but it is more an indication of how completely the South’s “Lost Cause” revision of history has sunk into our culture. When I read the assignment for that lesson I realized that Southern mythology could not survive this textbook. Students are given the Secession Declarations from South Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas, all name slavery as the primary reason for attempting to leave the Union.

The original texts used in the book are important documents and are sure to challenge readers at this grade level. I suspect that there will be push-back on some of the choices from both the left and right, they strike a good balance sure to offend many. They only used two pages from Paine’s “Common Sense”. The book is only 46 pages long, I would have liked to have seen more if not the entire text, but, like I said many people will be second guessing some of the author’s choices. Only in the lesson covering Jackson and the removal of the Eastern Indian Nations did I feel the sources were lacking. There were excerpts from Jackson and Chief John Ross of the Cherokee Nation as well as excerpts of pro and con speeches to Congress. Why repeat Jackson and Ross’ arguments and leave out the Supreme Court’s decision?

As I said, covering the entire history of the United States in one class is a silly, irresponsible requirement that schools, and texts like this, must follow. It guarantees information overload, unless you choose to edit out a lot of information. The closest the text comes to mentioning the labor movement is in one sentence, “One group, the Lowell Mill Girls, became world famous for their independence and culture.” What does that even mean and how does it deserve mention when the “Bread and Roses” Strike is overlooked? Later in the text the Civil Rights Movement follows the Great Depression which followed World War One propaganda. Where are Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam?

As a history text this book does the best it can with the unreasonable expectations that one class cover over 400 years of North American / US history. However, the lessons are uneven. Some seemed so simple and childish that I can’t imagine a middle schooler not being bored with them. Others were exceptional, I can see the discussion on Washington’s Farewell Address working in an adult class. Maybe a second edition will improve the weaker lessons and correct the bad links. Only legislatures can fix the unreasonable requirement to squeeze everything in U.S. history into one school year.

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Review: The Earl of Louisiana

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The Earl of Louisiana

Abbott Joseph Liebling’s 1961 book “The Earl of Louisiana” has been on my shelves for a long time. I bought it thinking it was about Huey Long and shelved it when I learned otherwise. After seeing the movie “Blaze” I had the opinion that younger brother Earl was a bit of a fool. If Rachel Shteir had not mentioned Liebling so many times in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show” I doubt I would have bothered to read it at all. I now have a new rule, if a book stays in print for over fifty years I need to read it.

This is not a biography of Earl Long, it is more a memoir of Liebling’s trip to Louisiana to report on the their governor’s mental breakdown. What he found, Louisiana style politics, was so different from what he expected that he stayed on the story even when he had to do it from long distance, covering the British elections. Earl Long, did have a physical breakdown, he was exhausted fighting to stop a bill intended to purge Louisiana’s voting rolls of African Americans. Louisiana, the entire south, was having a resurgence in segregation politics after the Brown V Board decision. Long called the segregationists “grass eaters”, herd animals, and Liebling adopted the practice.

As interesting as it was to have a glimpse into Louisiana politics it was Liebling’s playful use of language that most impressed me. Discussing how every Southern physician seemed to have an opinion on Earl Long’s health and pointing out the partisan divide on the diagnoses Liebling wrote, “Even his own experts, who denied he was demented, said in explanation of his antislavery views that he was beset by arteriosclerosis, several small strokes, oscillatory blood pressure and an irreverent gleam in his eye.” To illustrate the confusing mix of conversations at a campaign office on the night of the election he wrote, “Carried away by the stream of idiom like a drunk on a subway train, I missed a lot of stations.” Liebling had an ear for language. He quoted Earl Long at a campaign stop after opponents started labeling him crazy, “Wouldn’t you rather have a tried and true man, half crazy and half intelligent, than some bladderskite?”

I could go on and on with quotes like that, in places I gave up on highlighting sentences and simply put brackets around entire pages. I remember reviewing another book that had been in print continuously for over fifty years, “How to Lie with Statistics”, this is that good and just as deserving of being read.

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Review: Striptease, the untold history of the girlie show

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Striptease the untold history of the girlie show

On an opera stage in France, sometime in the 1830s, a dancer showed her ankle and shocked the audience. One hundred and fifty years later Goldie Hawn was gyrating in a gilded birdcage wearing only a bikini, her act broadcast to every American living room and only few people objected. Rachel Shteir looks at the evolution of stripping, of undressing, as part of a performance, in her book “Striptease: the untold history of the girlie show”, which won the 2004 George Freedley Award for Excellence in Live Theater Writing.

Social and technological changes seem to be the principal driving force behind the evolution of theatrical “undressing”. For most of the 19th century the rules were stable. If a “dancer” moved on stage she must stay covered. If a dancer stood still bare skin was permissible. Flesh was only exposed, legally, in “living art”, a still life representation of well known paintings or sculpture. If the dancer moved the most that they could expose was a form fitting “union suit”. It was the female form, not female flesh, on display. During this time dance was not even the principle “undressing act”. Most often their was a simple, often unimaginative, skit that provided the rationale for the undressing, bathing, preparing for bed, or the ever popular game of strip poker. Eroticism was a product of making public the private act of undressing .

Shteir points out that at least one change in fashion was necessary for the development of modern strip and tease, each started as a separate style of undressing act. The whalebone corset fell out of fashion, increasing the ease and speed for a woman to undress. With the coming of the first world war came the dawn of the Jazz Age, a result of moralists and the US military shutting down Storyville, New Orleans’ vice district, unemployed musicians spread the New Orleans sound up the Mississippi river to St. Louis and Chicago where it took root and spread across the nation and soon the world. In the roaring post war economy burlesque adopted jazz, a energetic boost to its Tin Pan Alley roots. A six piece band, a “strip band”, became the norm in the industry. The Midwest in the 1920s gave birth to both the “tease”, where the dancer performs a short song then ducks behind the curtain to remove an article of clothing before popping back on stage for another number repeating the sequence as far as local law enforcement will allow, and the “strip”, where the dancer slowly and deliberately undoes buttons and hooks while performing a song or to a song. Not all performers sang, often the theater would have someone singing just off stage, a job referred to as a “tit serenader”. By 1928 Billboard magazine had combined them into one word, striptease.

The Depression did not stop burlesque, top performers could earn $400 a week. Beginners and older dancers could still make $35 a week. Comedy played a bigger part in the performances, lifting the spirits of people enduring economic hard times. The comedy kept women in the audience of burlesque performances through the 1930s. Fannie Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee worked to put humor in their acts. It was also the age of burlesque queens, Sally Rand, Ann Corio, Gypsy Rose Lee and others who moved beyond the burlesque circuit into “legitimate theater” and the movies but maintained a relationship with striptease. With the bad economic times the moralists became more vocal, blaming the hard times on burlesque rather than on bad management by WASPs.* Moralists came out in force during the depression, doing their best to ruin business and slander performers. Ferdinand Pecora, a name I respected, the lawyer that investigated and prosecuted the big banks and oligarchs who brought on the Depression, prosecuted the Minsk’s for obscenity.

With the outbreak of World War II burlesque and striptease found some acceptance in the general population. Americans saw no need to deprive young soldiers going off to war a chance to have a good time. The war also exposed the world to what had been described as one of only two American art forms, striptease. Striptease caught on in France after WWII the same as jazz caught on after WWI. The late 1940s and 1950s were a highpoint for striptease but they also were the opening chapters in its fall from prosperity.

With television people had less reason to leave home. With changing fashions people had less need to pay to see the female form. Low revenue forced theaters to close, some reopening to show films featuring skin, movement, and no teasing. Fewer theaters meant fewer performers could find work and those that did tended to keep doing the acts that had worked in the past, originality suffered and even fewer paid admission. By 1969 Shteir says that striptease was economically obsolete. A few performers kept going into the 1980s performing in tents at county fairs to audiences that were now female by a 3 to 2 ratio. In her conclusion Shteir looks at the resurgence in interest in old fashioned striptease, neoburlesque where professional looking amateurs stage performances for their own reasons.

“Striptease” is a well written, well researched, and well organized book that was as fun to read as it was educational. Early in the book I was concerned that Shteir was using obscure words to sound more academic but it soon became evident that I just needed to be more familiar with parts of our language. The two words that I first tripped over, “chorine” is one chorus girl and “zaftig” is on the scale of “svelte” to “voluptuous” but I am still not sure where on the scale it falls, were uncommon but necessary to express the author’s ideas. Shteir also pointed out that in theater speak any action that shocks the audience, that grabs their attention is a “flash”, it is not just about breasts and behinds.

Although reviews on Amazon, which I read after reading the book, question some of the incidental facts in the book I only have to look at the list of resources Shteir researched and the detailed notes she includes to dismiss those objections as questionable at best. After all none of the reviews document their claims and anybody, even me, can post a review on the internet. Shteir’s basic premise, that striptease was an economic choice that some, but not all, performers made in spite of its hardships, is well defended and convincing. I have to recommend this book to any one interested in women’s history, economic history, and the theater.

* White Anglo Saxon Protestants for anyone younger than I am.

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Review: Slippery Tipples, weird and wonderful liqueurs

Slippery tipples : a guide to weird and wonderful spirits & liqueurs.

Slippery tipples : a guide to weird and wonderful spirits & liqueurs.

Joseph Piercy’s “Slippery tipples : a guide to weird and wonderful spirits & liqueur” is another “booze book” that I picked up at Half Price Books. First published in the United Kingdom the book catalogs the odd liqueurs and spirits the author has found in his travels. Each entry is short and sweet, the author gives a short history of the product in question, describes its ingredients, gives his opinion of it, and lists a few drink recipes that use it. Although I doubt I will be able to find and try the more exotic liqueurs mentioned in the book I have already been able to use my new found knowledge of the Chinese drink maotai in a dinner conversation with two gentleman from China. It sparked an interesting conversation about Chinese drinking customs that was entertaining and educational. The book provided valuable fuel for cross cultural conversations.

I do wish that Piercy was better at trying new things. His descriptions of the drinks taste, some powerfully negative, most just negative, and his selection of poorly named and poorly conceived drink recipes are off putting at times and occasionally funny. I hope he was aiming for funny.

I would have to say that this is a book only for someone interested in learning a little about the various exotic alcoholic drinks available around the world and I would advise that person to borrow, rather than buy, a copy.

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