It seems like there’s a new magazine debuting every week. After Brigid Hughes was ousted at the Paris Review, she started her own litmag called A Public Space, the debut issue of which has just arrived. Contained within: work by Charles D’Ambrosio, Kelly Link, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Rick Moody, and others. Here’s the full TOC.
1. The person who passed the baton to you.Scott.2. Total volume of music files on your computer.At the moment I’ve got a bit more than a gig, much of it the songs that have managed to follow me through the three computers I’ve been through since the Napster heyday.3. The title and artist of the last CD you bought.Sadly, I rarely buy music anymore. I used to spend a decent chunk of my disposable income on music, but in recent years I haven’t had much disposable income, and I definitely haven’t kept up with new music with the fervor that I once did. Accordingly, I last purchased a CD in October of 2004, Flight from Echo Falls by The Vells4. Song playing at the moment of writing.I listen to more and more NPR-type stuff instead of music these days (All Things Considered at the moment). When I do feel like listening to music at my computer, I’ll often listen 3wk.com, an Internet radio station that plays lots of great, obscure stuff.5. Five songs you have been listening to of late (or all-time favorites, or particularly personally meaningful songs)See above.6. The three people to whom you will ‘pass the musical baton.’DerekCemJustin
Last week, Max directed our attention to a major new piece of reporting on the financial crisis: a Portfolio article by Millions favorite Michael Lewis. The author of Liar’s Poker, among other books, Lewis is a gifted explainer of an industry badly in need of explanations. In the Portfolio piece, for example, he immerses us in the world of short-sellers who saw the subprime meltdown coming. However, the key paragraph – wherein trader Steve Eisman has an epiphany about how investment banks are leveraging subprime bonds – resorts to a sports metaphor, and thus fails to demystify an elusive instrument at the center of the financial crisis: the credit default swap (CDS).”When a fantasy player drafts Peyton Manning, he doesn’t create a second Peyton Manning to inflate the league’s stats,” Lewis writes.But when Eisman bought a credit-default swap, he enabled Deutsche Bank to create another bond identical in every respect but one to the original. The only difference was that there was no actual homebuyer or borrower. The only assets backing the bonds were the side bets Eisman and others made with firms like Goldman Sachs. Eisman, in effect, was paying to Goldman the interest on a subprime mortgage. In fact, there was no mortgage at all. ‘They weren’t satisfied getting lots of unqualified borrowers to borrow money to buy a house they couldn’t afford,’ Eisman says. ‘They were creating them out of whole cloth. One hundred times over! That’s why the losses are so much greater than the loans.’I’ve heard financial insiders inveigh against peons who “don’t know a credit-default swap from a turnip,” but how are we to wise up, if explanations only come in the form of metaphors (athletic or agricultural)? Grabbing a fig leaf from the N+1 playbook, as it were, I decided to ask a friend in finance to explain the Peyton Manning analogy, as simply as possible. Here’s what he had to say (wait for “the rub”):Assume the following: Eisman buys a crappy mortgage security (say, a $1,000 bond from a mortgage given to a strawberry picker who makes $14,000 dollars per year). Say the mortgage rate the strawberry picker pays is 15%. This means he’s agreed to pay $150 a year to Eisman. But Eisman is worried that the strawberry picker will default because the guy’s house value has collapsed and his income is drying up. Thus, Eisman wants to buy insurance on the $1,000 he’s loaned. The way he does this is via a credit default swap.A CDS is essentially an insurance policy on a loan, and here’s how it works. Eisman finds a counterparty willing to sell him insurance on his loan (a big investment bank like Lehman Brothers). Eisman agrees to pay the bank a fixed rate every year for protection of the mortgage security he owns (the crappier the loan, the higher the rate). Let’s say for the $1,000 loan to the strawberry picker, his rate will be 10%. The bank pays him nothing on a regular basis, BUT, if the borrower defaults, they pay him the full $1,000.So: if times are good and everyone makes payments on time, the payments are structured as follows: The strawberry picker pays $150 per year to Eisman; Eisman pays $100 per year to Lehman (which then uses some of the cash to provision for losses, and uses the rest to make more loans). The strawberry picker gets to keep his house, Eisman keeps $50 per year (loan payment from strawberry picker minus the insurance premium he pays to Lehman), and Lehman gets $100.Got the structure? Now here’s the rub.Imagine Eisman never actually had exposure to the loan in the first place. Being the brilliant skeptic he is, Eisman would never lend $1,000 to a strawberry picker with little income. He thinks that strawberry man is doomed to default on that loan, and he actually wants to bet AGAINST him. So instead of giving the loan and buying insurance, he just buys the insurance (hence the often used and rarely understood term “side bet”). To do this, Eisman still has to pay the “premium” for the insurance he’s bought, and since it’s a risky loan, the rate is high (e.g. $100 per year in the example above). [Though he stands to win $1,000 if the loan defaults.] In effect, Eisman is paying a “subprime-like” interest rate to Lehman every year! That’s what Lewis was getting at.I would have used a different metaphor. I would have said it’s like a New Yorker buying a bunch of home insurance policies in New Orleans because you are expecting that there will be a massive hurricane coming to wreck them. Now lets say that the insurance company took the money you were giving it, didn’t provision for the coming doom, and instead, used that money to lend to more people building and buying houses in New Orleans.That’s leverage upon leverage upon leverage. And that’s the mess that is unraveling before us.
The numbers are huge, 8.2 million copies sold in 24 hours in the U.S., 2.65 million in the U.K., but Harry Potter isn’t necessarily a boon for book stores. The big chains, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and the like, discount the book sharply in order to compete with one another, and then they hope that customers will pick up some other books where the profit margins are better. Independent bookstores are far less likely to discount at all. They don’t get the books in large enough quantities to get a deal from the publisher, and, less efficient than the chains, they can’t afford to trim profit margins much.Generally, this is the case for most any bestseller, where the chains discount 20%, 30%, even 40% or more, and the indies sell books at full price, getting by on atmosphere, customer loyalty, and skillfully selling non-bestsellers that may not be on the front tables at chain stores. In the case of Harry Potter, however, a whole nother layer of retail establishments gets in on the action. The big box stores, like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target, have already put the squeeze on the bookstore chains with bulk quantities of deeply discounted bestsellers, so a book like Harry Potter fits nicely into their business plan. But the net is cast even wider for Harry Potter. Grocery stores, usually not likely to have much in the way of books aside from the occasional rack of mass-market paperbacks by the register had stacks and stacks of the final boy wizard installment. Even Best Buy, whose products are probably more typically responsible for a decline in reading, had customers lined up at midnight so it could sell the book, placing Harry Potter alongside the Wii and the PlayStation3 in the pantheon of must have products hawked by the electronics giant.And so, by selling the book at full price and getting by on charm, it’s likely some of the indies got a bottom line boost from the Potter madness, but for the chain stores, squeezed by other giant corporations, profits may be tougher. On a much smaller scale, this challenge was evident in Malaysia, where book chains protested the price slashing of grocery giants, who sold Harry Potter at below cost, by boycotting the book (imagine Barnes & Noble trying that!) Eventually, the Malaysian booksellers worked out a deal with Penguin, Harry Potter’s distributor in the country, but the episode highlights the high stakes competition that book retailers face when they are forced to go up against retail heavyweights.
Joel Stein of the LA Times is bravely calling the wrath of legions of Harry Potter fans down upon himself, but I can’t say that I agree with what he’s trying to say. First there’s the headline: “Hogwarts fans, you’re stupid, stupid, stupid.” Not mincing any words there. Stein is apparently infuriated that so many adults are excited about the upcoming Harry Potter book. “Next Saturday, when the sixth Harry Potter book comes out, at the very least I want you to stammer excuses when I see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on your nightstand. I want you to claim you’re reading it to make sure it’s OK for your kids, or your future kids, or even, if you have to, for kids in general,” he writes. He goes on to bash adults who enjoy C.S. Lewis, E.B. White and J.R.R. Tolkien (“Isn’t it a clue that you should be ashamed of reading these books past puberty when the adults who write them are hiding their first names?”) and Finding Nemo. Stein’s grating tone aside, there are two points I’d like to make: First, some of the best books and movies we have were written for kids (or kids AND adults). It must be sad to go through life avoiding “kid stuff” because you don’t deem it to be intellectually up to par. Secondly, what do you think all these adults who are reading Harry Potter will read instead? It will be Dan Brown and James Patterson on their nightstands, if they read at all. Is that really so much better? I say that if people are reading it’s a good thing for the book industry and for our culture – even if it is just a kids’ book.
Pulitzer winner Junot Díaz talks with his fellow “Year in Reading” contributor Meghan O’Rourke in the debut episode of the online video series Open Book, co-sponsored by Slate and my alma mater. I’m thrilled that the producers elected to keep the same zany voice-over guy who reads Slate’s audio podcasts. Future interviews, we’re told, will include John Ashbery, Charles Simic, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
Here at The Millions we’ve praised Woody Allen’s writing over the years – Andrew discussed Without Feathers in 2005 and I did the same a year later. For fans like us, it’s been a good month.While Allen’s movies have been coming along unabated for decades, there’s been less on offer for fans of Allen’s writing. But this month, for the first time in 25 years, Allen has a new humor collection out. Mere Anarchy collects many of Allen’s recent New Yorker pieces as well as some new material. Supplementing that slim volume is The Insanity Defense, which puts Allen’s three earlier collections under one cover – Without Feathers is joined by Getting Even and Side Effects. Both new books are must haves for Allen fans.