A Question on Rugby

Tom Fordyce, Chief sports writer at the BBC, asks:

England equal the All Blacks – but are they on their level?

I can answer that emphatically: no.

Don’t get me wrong, England are good – and I say this as a Wales supporter. Since Eddie Jones has taken over he has given what was already a talented squad the ability to both win games with some style and, if necessary, grind out a win by holding off defeat. England have become extremely difficult to beat as their 18-match streak attests, and they are by quite some margin the best team in the northern hemisphere.

But there is one thing here that is not being acknowledged: there is the entire rugby playing world, and then there are the All Blacks. This has been the case for some years now: Australia has always been able to beat them in the odd match, but they haven’t held the Bledisloe Cup since 2002. Australian rugby is still strong enough to beat Wales, Scotland, France and on most days England and Ireland, but as I wrote here, Australian rugby is in somewhat of a slump and has been for a while. South Africa are in even worse shape, having taken a reasonable team to the last world cup but are now fielding an embarrassment of a side ridden through with racial politics which are borne out in performances on the pitch. Meanwhile New Zealand have just gone from strength to strength as Fordyce notes on the way to answering his own question in much the same manner I did:

The World Cup-winning All Blacks side contained arguably the two finest ever in their positions, fly-half Dan Carter and flanker Richie McCaw, as well as other superstars in Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith. They were the first team in history to retain the Webb Ellis trophy, like the Brazil side that won football’s World Cup in 1970 at a sanctified level, taking their sport to heights that none before had touched.

When McCaw and Carter stepped away, the team continued to develop rather than atrophy. The XV that set the original 18-match mark with the 37-10 Bledisloe Cup win over the Wallabies contained eight players who would make most critics’ fantasy world team: Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Beauden Barrett, Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read.

Most England fans don’t watch the Super XV rugby, and I suspect even fewer Wales supporters do. The Super Rugby is shown at odd times on Sky TV, meaning most people in the northern hemisphere won’t have the time to watch this tournament which produces something like eight or ten games per weekend. This isn’t a problem for me: lighthouse keepers go green with envy when they see how much time I have on my hands. At least those guys have to polish the lamp every now and again. Ever since I went to Nigeria in 2010 I’ve watched most Super XV matches in which at least one New Zealand team featured.

I’ve also watched almost every Six Nations game played over that same period, and the difference couldn’t be more stark. I might have mentioned this on TNA’s old blog, but the basic skills of the New Zealand players are an order of magnitude better than those of their northern hemisphere counterparts. A Welsh side will be attacking the opponent’s line at the five metre mark and the scrum-half will, from the base of a ruck, fling the ball to the inside centre who has made a charge from miles back and is at full pelt. Only the ball will be either way above the centre’s head or down by his knees, meaning he will have to check his run and reach up or down for it. By the time he’s got going again, he’s tackled. Watch a Kiwi team in the same position and the ball will be taken right on the chest, nine times out of ten. That’s just one example, but it is representative of almost every aspect of the game. The Kiwis have not only mastered the basic skills at age ten, they’ve then gone on to master the secondary skills such as offloading in the tackle, passes out the back of the hand, and all the other little tricks that make for good viewing.

The weekend before I went to Portugal I watched a Six Nations match with a foreign friend of mine, who (thanks to a Welsh ex-boyfriend) was not a complete stranger to rugby. Shortly afterwards we watched the Chiefs play the Blues in the Super XV, and even she noticed the difference in speed and skill. It really was like watching another sport. It wasn’t only the skill, it was the thinking behind it all. One of the things that frustrates me the most when watching Wales is how damned thick they are: there is no imagination, no inventiveness, no sneaky cleverness. They can’t even manage angled runs half the time: Jamie Roberts is incapable of doing anything other than barelling straight into his opposite number, who in the modern era duly tackles him with ease. England aren’t much better, with the geniuses running the show on the pitch taking an entire half to work out that Italy were playing within the laws during their recent Six Nations match. Watch Aaron Smith and Dane Coles for a while and see how finely tuned their match awareness is, or track the off-the-ball movements of Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith. As my friend pointed out, they’re passing the ball without even looking because they know damned well a support player (or two or three) will be hurtling up on their shoulder.

The All Blacks are beatable, very occasionally, as Ireland proved a few months back. The opening test of a series is normally quite close as the Kiwis overcome some sort of lethargy before obliterating their opponents in the final two matches. Anyone who has watched the All Blacks over the past five years or so will know that they can be beaten over 60 minutes without much difficulty. Only they bring on five or six world-class players from the subs bench and never let up on the intensity, which almost always secures them a comfortable victory by the time the final whistle blows.

England are good, and they might even run the All Blacks close in a single game, and half time could well see the men in white leading comfortably. But over a three-match series we would see that, despite being top of the rest of the pile in world rugby, New Zealand are way off on the horizon and the distance is growing.

Back in Paris

I’m back from Lisbon, and it was superb. Miles better, in my opinion, than the vastly overrated Barcelona. I’ll write a full report sometime this week, along with some photos. Hopefully I’ll put a blog post or two up today as well, but we’ll see: things are looking busy.

Lambing

There’s a thread over at Tim Worstall’s about sheep breeding, and I’ve thrown in my contribution as usual. The thing is, I know a bit about this (I grew up in Wales, after all) and this isn’t the first time I’ve described it. So just for the hell of it I’ll turn it into a blog post.

Firstly, to get sheep to breed you need both ewes and rams. With me so far? Good. A flock of a hundred or so ewes can be serviced by two or three rams, no bother. If you ever see a ram you’ll notice it has enormous bollocks for such a small animal. There are reasons for this. Normally you’d keep the ewes in one field and the rams in another waaaaaaaaay over the other side of the farm, otherwise your lambing season is going to be somewhat lengthy. When the right time of year comes around (autumn, I think) you send the rams in and they get to work. But before you do that you strap a large, rectangular crayon to their chests using a nylon harness, with each ram getting a different colour. This is for keeping score. When the ram mounts a ewe and starts humping the crayon leaves a mark on her back. At the end of a few weeks the farmer can see which sheep have been humped and which remain un-humped, and see which ram has been putting in the hard yards and which has been loafing under a tree snoozing. If a ram isn’t pulling his weight, chances are he’ll be replaced for the next season with one a little more enthusiastic. So if ever you wake up captured by aliens with an odd crayon strapped to your belly, you’ll have an idea what is expected of you to survive.

At some point later on, I forget when, the farmer may enlist the services of a guy who, for a per-sheep fee, uses one of those ultrasound machines you find in antenatal wards to determine how many lambs are inside each ewe. I’ve watched somebody do this and how he can determine anything from the grey mess that appears on the screen is beyond me, but we wrote down his predictions against the tag number of each ewe and his predictions were bang on. At this point the farmer will be paying close attention to which ewes are not “with lamb” and what colour mark is on their back. If too many ewes with red crayon marks are not carrying lambs, then that particular ram is out of a job for next season. If all the ewes with a red mark are carrying lambs except one or two, then those ewes might be barren. We’ll see next year.

Lambing season starts sometime in spring and you prepare a lambing shed which is warm, dry, and divided into pens. You keep your flock in a field nearby and when any is showing signs of imminent birthing (I have no idea what the more subtle signs are, but forelegs sticking out the back of a ewe is not unheard of) you catch them using a pickup truck and a young, fit, and slightly idiotic local boy who for some reason likes farms and get them into the lambing shed. You then wait for them to give birth, and this can take a while so sometimes the shed is rigged up to CCTV and fed back to the farmhouse. I should point out that all of this is what went on back in the early-mid 1990s, so perhaps things have moved on now and there is an iPhone app for all this. Anyway, when a ewe starts to give birth it usually needs human help.

This is particularly the case with multiple births: most ewes carry two lambs, three is common, four less common, and occasionally five. Single lambs are common enough but a little disappointing from the point of view of the farmer. Ewes often struggle to give birth and so somebody must assist by grabbing hold of the protruding forelegs and giving them a yank. If the lamb is facing the wrong way around then somebody must roll up their sleeve, wash their arm in soapy water up the elbow, reach in, grab the legs, and yank it out. I have never done this myself but have held the animal when this was being done many times, and I was about 12 or 13 years old at the time. No city boy, me.

Sometimes when you pull a lamb out it is not breathing, and you need to try to revive it. First you tip its head back and clear its airway of mucus, and then you stick a piece of straw up its nostril. This will sometimes cause it to sneeze and it will start breathing. If that doesn’t work you grab it by its hind legs and swing it in an arc (taking care not to smack its head against a wall or something) so that its head is flung back and air forced into the airway. I swear I’m not making this up, but don’t take this as a manual for what you should do: ask a vet. You do that a few times and then massage its heart. Sometimes it will cough into life, other times not. If not, you get the corpse away from the mother ASAP: you want her attention focused on the lambs that survived.

Even distribution of the lambs is important. A ewe may feel overwhelmed by more than two or three lambs and you’ll notice straight away if one is lacking attention. If so it stands a high risk of being abandoned, and ewes are prone to lying on top of their unwanted young and smothering them. So any that is looking like an outcast is taken away and an attempt is made to wean it onto a mother with only one lamb of her own. This is done by taking the afterbirth of the adopted mother and wrapping it around the foster lamb immediately after she has given birth in the hope that she will smell it and be tricked into thinking it is one of her own. This works surprisingly often and the lamb is adopted and looked after. If she doesn’t fall for it then you have an orphaned lamb, which is immediately thrown to a pack of hungry dogs you keep outside just for this purpose. Nobody has time or patience for orphaned lambs.

I’m kidding, you don’t do that. The orphaned lambs – nicknamed “mollies” on the farm I used to play around on – are kept in a separate pen under a strong heat lamp, and cared for by hand. If you have a farm dog that is female, chances are her mothering instincts will kick in and she’ll lie in beside them. When kids come around wanting to see the lambs, these are the ones you show them because there are no protective mothers and they are used to human contact. You might have to wrap them in towels for a while, and two or three times a day you feed them warm milk from a bottle of the exact type you use on a baby. These things are as cute as you can imagine and feeding them is a lot of fun with lots of “Aaaw!” sounds being made. You can put milk on your fingers and get them to suck so hard you can almost lift them off the ground (they don’t have teeth yet), and they are still so small you can pick one up in each hand easily. They can stand up within about an hour of being born, but they are very unsteady on their feet at the beginning. This only makes them cuter.

When the weather gets warmer and the lambs a bit stronger, they’re kicked out into the field where you see them playing and my experience with lambs converges with that of everyone else. I did a lot of this sort of stuff when I was a kid, and you don’t forget it.

Australia v India Second Test

I was going to comment on this anyway, but I thought it would be another grudging acknowledgement of another Australian win. But as things have turned out, Australia have managed to lose their second test against India having started the match bowling their opponents out for a paltry 189 thanks to a mind-boggling 8 for 50 from spinner Nathan Lyon. Australia’s reply saw them take an 87-run lead and then restricting India to 274 in their second innings, leaving them a target of 187 to win the match. Surprisingly Lyon didn’t take a single wicket in the second innings, and it was paceman Josh Hazlewood who did the damage taking 6 for 67. Batting fourth is never easy, particularly on a spinning wicket in India, but 187 ought to have been gettable. Instead they were skittled for 112, with Captain Steve Smith – who is being accused of cheating – getting the highest score of 28.

It will be interesting to see how Australia respond from here with the series at one apiece.

The Future for Men

Via Twitter I stumbled across this blog post about the grim future facing young boys in a world seemingly hell-bent on promoting women simply for being women:

I must say that when I read of Hillary Clinton’s recent video proclamation…that “the future is female,” my mind immediately raced to my four grandsons, ages 3, 7, 10, and 11. What would the two older ones think if and when they heard or read of this statement, which emanated from someone who came very close to being our president (and for whom I had voted)? In fact, what does this say to Clinton’s own grandson, Aidan, who is now eight months old? The message to her granddaughter, 2-year-old Charlotte is clear and encouraging. But what about Aidan? And all his baby boy peers?

Yes, due to the incredible energy and persistence of second wave feminism, the world—read, the developed world—has changed positively for women, and especially for girls and young women.

Just one example: Education. In 1975, men slightly outnumbered women on college campuses, and vastly outnumbered them in graduate school, medical school, and law school. Today, women substantially outnumber men on college campuses, and are essentially 50 percent of postgraduate programs. In fact, in the last several years there have been more doctorates awarded to women than to men.

By comparison, boys and young men have, at best, languished.

That education systems in the West have been transformed to benefit girls, i.e. by putting more weight on coursework and collaborative projects than all-or-nothing exams has been known for years. It has also been noted that teachers and school staff are overwhelmingly female:

Female staff make up an even higher percentage of teaching
assistants, 92 per cent, and school support staff, 82 per cent. In total
80 per cent of the school workforce are female.

There has been very little change between 2012 and 2013 in the
percentage of teachers who are female/male. In 2013, 73.6 per cent of
teachers were female, 26.4 per cent male. In 2012, the split was 73.3
per cent of teachers were female, 26.6 per cent male.

The detrimental effect this has had on boys has been known for a long time. The fact that young men are the most likely to commit suicide is something that doesn’t garner as much attention as it ought to.

The blog post I quoted at the beginning asks what boys and young men are supposed to make of campaigns, often supported by government, which state categorically that the future belongs to women. I myself have wondered a similar thing when it comes to the corporate world. It is difficult to identify a major corporation these days which does not openly cite “gender equality” as one of its core missions and actively campaigns internally and externally for more women to fill the prestigious and better-paid positions. Audi recently embarrassed itself by perpetuating the gender pay gap myth in an advert it showed during the Superbowl in a sign that modern corporations have adopted third-wave feminist agendas without even bothering to check whether the complaints are real, let alone whether the solutions are desirable.

This will come as no surprise to those who have bothered to look at a major corporation. For all the talk of women being underrepresented in modern business, anyone who has had to deal with an HR department will find it staffed almost exclusively with women. Take a look at a marketing department in any given corporation and count the number of men versus women, particularly those in management. Admin and general services aren’t much different, and nor is public relations. The legal department will probably be around a 50:50 split, as will the accounts department. If anything, they’ll be top-heavy with women.

Where you don’t find as many women is in the technical and production side of a business, i.e. the bit that makes the company money. In other words, women prevail in the support services and men tend to dominate the departments which create the product that brings in the revenue. And this is what the campaigns are trying to change: the problem facing modern corporations isn’t that there are not enough women employed, but that they are not employed in the right areas, i.e. those which require technical skills and pay well. Rather than accept the rather obvious truth that women are under-represented in these areas mostly because they choose not to go into them nor study the university subjects that lead there, corporations have decided to aim for equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. In practice, this means promoting women ahead of men in order that the gender statistics balance to a degree satisfactory to the Diversity Department.

Which is fine: companies may do as they please if they think it will help them in some way. But don’t expect young men leaving university (or thinking about going to university) to be overly impressed with a graduate recruitment programme that talks incessantly about women as if men didn’t matter any more: chances are they’ll get the message and think about doing something else.

So what else will they do? Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? For a while I believed the future of employment lay with giant corporations wedded to government-imposed regulations that kill off smaller competition and create insurmountable barriers to entry. But now I’m not so sure. Whereas I always thought industries were destined to consolidate, now it looks as though they may well do the opposite. Look at my own industry: the supermajors are struggling to come to terms with an era of lower oil prices and have adopted strategies of effectively waiting for it to go back up again. Meanwhile light, nimble shale operators you’ve never heard of in the United States have popped up out of nowhere and are back producing again. The growth areas of employment in France are not giant, lumbering industrial champions but much smaller IT service companies (not many people know this, but the French are really good at IT, particularly stuff like point-of-sale technologies). Logistics is an enormous growth area which the Internet has opened up: how many people does Amazon employ now compared to ten years ago? Whereas years ago manufacturing was done in giant factories, now a combination of the Internet and CNC machines means small-scale fabrication can be done anywhere. At the moment it is still being done in China, but there is every chance that as 3D printing develops further we could see the benefits of tiny, one or two-man cottage industries in every town making things on demand with a delivery time measured in hours beating the current model of making everything in China and shipping it over. It is speculation on my part, but I can see a future in fragmented, tiny enterprises scattered everywhere and linked to the customer by the Internet and brilliant, on-demand logistics. I also think this will represent a better opportunity for economic growth than further consolidation of massive, established companies. It’s hard to see what more can be done with the latter, whereas the possibilities for the former are endless.

Which raises the question: into which model do men and women fit? As I said before, women seem to prefer working in sprawling bureaucracies masquerading as support functions in huge companies. Men tend to drift towards the sharp end of the business where the core function is carried out and the most value added. I am also fairly certain that it will be men who are setting up the small, nimble businesses that aim to cash in on technologies such as the Internet, drones, and 3D printing. There will be female entrepreneurs, but their numbers will be dwarfed by those who are men. For whatever reason, young men in their twenties have a habit of risking all for a big reward instead of seeking security and certainty, at least in comparison to their female peers.

If the future of economic growth and employment opportunities are going to be in smaller, lightweight companies with minimal overheads working in fragmented industries scattered all over the place, the brightest men will be drawn to these areas of the economy. This will only get worse if established employers continue to favour women over men in their recruitment and career development policies, as most are doing now. I appreciate I can’t see the future and I might be wrong about all this, but we could find ourselves in a situation whereby large corporations become the employers of choice for women while the men head off into the areas of the economy that represent the future. And how do you think that’s going to work out for each group?

In short, those taking advantage of corporate policies designed to give better opportunities and outcomes to women may find themselves enjoying a glittering career in an organisation that is being bypassed by small companies of men who collectively wield far more clout. It’s all very well being fast-tracked up the corporate ladder to the rousing applause of your fellow female colleagues, but it won’t mean much if they’re working for the equivalent of Blockbuster Video and Netflix has just launched.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and no doubt the Western media will be filled with puff pieces on women in politics, business, and education (unlike in Russia where the girls turn up in short skirts and knee boots, get given flowers, and then go out at lunchtime to get smashed on cheap champagne). I’ll do my best to ignore them, but I reckon in another generation there will be a few household names who will wish they hadn’t chased the men away quite so quickly.

Trip to Lisbon

I’m going to be in Lisbon from Thursday afternoon until Sunday lunchtime, wandering around with my camera and eating what I have been told is superb local food. I’ve never been to Portugal before, so if anyone has any specific recommendations for things I should see and do, please let me know in the comments.

Two Allegations, No Evidence

Reporting on Trump’s allegations of wiretapping, the BBC says:

The Republican president, who faces intense scrutiny over alleged Russian interference in support of his presidential bid, made the claims in a series of tweets on Saturday.

He offered no evidence to support his allegation that phones at Trump Tower were tapped last year.

Perhaps the BBC could have also mentioned that there is no evidence to support the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, either. So we’re looking at two sets of allegations, neither of which have been backed up by evidence.

But it’s interesting to look at the allegations in each case. When Russia was accused of “hacking” the 2016 election a lot of people asked, quite reasonably, “What exactly do you mean by that?” Nobody came forward and gave a clear answer to this question. Two or three months after the allegations were first aired I still don’t know what, specifically, the Russians are supposed to have done. That’s why Trump’s reaction has largely been “WTF are you on about?” His opponents attacked Flynn who got fired on the spot, probably for bullshitting his management rather than breaking any laws or ethical codes. They’ve had another go against Sessions, with the media spinning like fury to portray the Attorney General as having lied under oath. As Streetwise Professor explains, he did no such thing:

The entire Sessions imbroglio smacks of scumbag lawyer tactics. The Unfunny Clown, Senator Al Franken, asked (in a convoluted way) a very narrow question (which was related to an even narrower written question in a set of interrogatories) about Session’s interactions with the Russians. Sessions answered the question–which was not an unconditional query about contacts with the Russians, but which related to very specific types of contacts and discussions. Franken and the Democrats then accused Sessions of perjury because the Senator (and then-Attorney General designate) had met with the Russian ambassador to the US on two occasions. Asking a narrow question, and then claiming the answer was a false response to a broader question (that was not asked) is a sleazy lawyer trick.

It is a certainty that were there any hard evidence of allegations of Russian influence in the 2016 election and links between Trump and the Russian government they’d have been plastered all over every news channel and newspaper long ago. As things stand they haven’t even been able to get the allegations properly specified. This is why Trump has been able to impudently wave them away, although the daily media storm will certainly be hampering his ability to do his job.

Perhaps Trump thought that if this is the way things were going to carry on in Washington then he’d sling some mud of his own. Perhaps he pulled the allegations of Obama wiretapping him out of his arse, but even if that is true he has at least had the brains to accuse his opponents of something specific and verifiable, rather than woolly concepts such as “influence” and “possible links”.

And despite the lack of evidence, the reactions themselves are telling a story. As SWP notes in the same post:

I will just mention one fact that strongly supports the veracity of Trump’s allegation: namely, the very narrow–and lawyerly–“denials” emanating from the Obama camp.

Obama and his surrogates–notably the slug (or is he a cockroach?) Ben Rhodes–harrumph that Obama could not unilaterally order electronic surveillance. Well, yes, it is the case that Obama did not personally issue the order: the FISA court did so. But even if that is literally correct, it is also true that the FISA court would not unilaterally issue such an order: it would only do so in response to a request from the executive branch. Thus, Obama is clearly implicated even if he did not issue the order. He could have ordered his subordinates to make the request to the court, or could have approved a subordinate’s request to seek an order. Maybe he merely hinted, a la Henry II–“will no one rid me of this turbulent candidate?” (And “turbulent” is a good adjective to apply to Trump.) But regardless, there is no way that such a request to the court in such a fraught and weighty matter would have proceeded without Obama’s acquiescence.

And from the BBC:

FBI director James Comey has rejected Donald Trump’s claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, ordered a wiretap of his phone before he was elected US president, US media say.

Mr Comey reportedly asked the US justice department (DOJ) to publicly reject Saturday’s allegation, according to the New York Times and NBC.

He is said to have asked for this because the allegation falsely insinuated that the FBI broke the law.

The DOJ has not commented.

US media quoted officials as saying that Mr Comey believed there was no evidence to support Mr Trump’s allegation.

From an FBI director this is a startling rebuke of a sitting president and Mr Comey will be under pressure from Democrats to voice it publicly, the BBC’s Nick Bryant reports from Washington.

The mainstream media is reporting unnamed “officials” relaying the words of the FBI director which amount to a “startling rebuke” of Trump. If the allegations are untrue, why all the cloak-and-dagger stuff?

Ask yourself, who seems to be responding with the more convincing demeanour: those accused of having “ties” with Russia, or those accused of illegally wiretapping Trump?

I’d rather watch Neighbours

The cringeworthiness of this recruitment video pushed out by the Australian Department of Finance is surpassed only by the hilarity of this blog post ripping it apart. My favourite line:

“I wouldn’t miss it. The last one was great,” she informs him with a level of sincerity usually reserved for hostage videos.

Whoever signed off on the original video needs to be taken outside and shot.

(H/T Adam)

More Meddling from Obama

A month ago I said this:

For the Democrats to move on and rebuild themselves into a credible party of opposition they need to distance themselves from the Obama era and his many of his policies, and carry along as many of his supporters as they can in the process. For as long as Obama is spouting off from the sidelines this will be very difficult to achieve, mainly because his supporters will listen to him rather than the Democrat Party.

Via Bayou Renaissance Man comes this Daily Mail article:

On Tuesday, former Attorney General Eric Holder revealed that Obama is indeed getting closer to making his public reappearance in politics.

‘It’s coming. He’s coming,’ Holder said speaking to reporters. ‘And he’s ready to roll.’

 According to the family source, Obama was at first reluctant to assume the role of leader of the opposition.

‘No longer the most powerful man in the world, he was just observing Trump and not liking what he saw,’ said the source.

‘He was weary and burned out after eight years in office. But Valerie [Jarrett] convinced him that he didn’t have any choice if he wanted to save his legacy. And, as usual, he bowed to Valerie’s political wisdom and advice.’

Spurred on by Jarrett and Michelle, the ex-president has come to embrace his role as the leader of the opposition against Trump, whose policies he loathes and whose presidency he considers illegitimate.

‘He is going to use his immense popularity with the half of the country that identifies as liberals and progressives,’ said the Obama family source. ‘Millions of Americans are energized and ready to take to the streets to oppose Trump, but they need to be organized and have their anger focused and directed.

It’s all a bit third world, isn’t it? The former President spouting off from the sidelines, desperate to save his “legacy”, and believing the country can’t possibly function without his input. If the Democrats don’t get a grip on him soon, it’ll be difficult to know what role they serve (other than peddling rumours about Trump and Russia).

And speaking of the third world:

Michelle hired Los Angeles-based interior designer Michel S. Smith, who designed several rooms in The White House during their residence, to decorate the Kalorama home. Smith will also decorate the Obama’s new home in Rancho Mirage, California.

The friend said that Valerie and her signature enormous totes are going to be packed and ready to go for shopping sprees with Michelle from their native Chicago to Paris and the Far East, including Shanghai.

‘They feel like they have had some great trips while in the White House, but were always working and being herded around,’ said the source. ‘Now they are planning to travel together – home to Chicago, to Paris and Shanghai, and shop to their heart’s content.

‘The Obamas both love the Kalorama house and are making it their own,’ continued the source. ‘They have plans to build a pool on the grounds. And they are almost certainly going to wind up buying the house from Lockart in the next few years.

‘They are also planning to have a house in Hawaii, as well as in Chicago, where the Obama Presidential Library will be built. But Kalorama, where the Washington action takes place, is going to be home base.’

Although one would expect a former US President to be richer than most, purchasing prime real estate and jetting around the world on shopping sprees might raise a few question as to where this money came from. When the world’s media praised the Michelle Obama for “showing grace”, I didn’t realise they were referring to Grace Mugabe.

American Painting in the 1930s

A few weeks ago I did something that, I think, I’ve never done before: I went to an art gallery specifically to see an exhibition I was interested in. Last year I was dragged around a display of badly-crafted junk and paint ejaculated at random over dirty patches of canvas in what was called a modern art exhibition in the Palais de Tokyo, but other than that I don’t think I’ve ever been to an art gallery. And yes, that includes the Louvre to which I have free access and I don’t need to queue, thanks to my employer shovelling a load of money in their direction at some point. I also skipped the Hermitage every time I’ve been in Saint Petersburg. Those scraping sounds you can hear are my knuckles dragging on the floor as I hunt for my banana.

This one was different, though. I saw it advertised on the metro, and immediately took an interest. The subject was American Painting in the 1930s and it was being held at the Musée de l’Orangerie. What caught my attention was their use of Grant Wood’s American Gothic in the poster:

I can’t say I was familiar with this painting beforehand but I had seen it occasionally and rather liked it, and I was curious to see what else they had on display. So along I went, and I wasn’t disappointed.

It helped that I knew about the era in question to begin with. I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, and noted other cultural references such as Brother, Can You Spare a Dime and the more recent Cinderella Man. I’m also fairly clued up on the history of America’s industrial development, which meant I could recognise the names and roles of companies, brands, and cities that were depicted in the paintings.

Quite a few of the paintings, particularly those created by the aforementioned Grant Wood, depicted rural landscapes and the agricultural life which was clobbered by the Great Depression and the dustbowl conditions. I probably found these the most interesting, originally hailing from a farming region myself (albeit one considerably wetter). I was interested to note that one of them – Fall Plowing – was owned by the John Deere Art Collection and depicted an abandoned plough.

I then proceeded to bore by companion with an (inaccurate) explanation of who John Deere was and the huge developments in the mechanisation of agriculture that occurred in the US following WWII.

Alexandre Hogue’s Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare made a powerful point:

Another section concentrated more on the political side of things, with a lot of the painters having obvious Communist sympathies – hardly unusual for the time (or now!). A particularly good painting was Peter Blume’s The Eternal City.

The picture above simply doesn’t do the colours justice. The man in the room on the left was painted so well that the original makes it look backlit, and the turquoise of the head (Mussolini’s, I think) was almost fluorescent. One thing that was obvious from this collection was how much better the paints were compared to artworks of previous eras and how much better preserved they are. Not being hung for a century in a room with an open fire probably has something to do with it, though.

Philip Guston’s Bombardment, which depicts an aerial attack during the Spanish Civil War, was also very good. Again, the picture below doesn’t do the colours justice.

The exhibition tour finished with a projector on a loop showing clips from films of the era including Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and The Grapes of Wrath among others. I believe the purpose of this was to emphasise how much the Great Depression influenced American culture, and it showed there were two elements to this: works showing its terrible effects and those depicting hope and the country’s eventual climbing out of it.

The exhibition is finished now; I went on one of the last evenings and it was packed. If everyone else’s experience was like mine, it is easy to see why. It was excellent, and I think it’ll be a long time before I am as impressed by what is hanging on the wall of an art gallery. Hopefully that scraping sound has softened a notch.