Friday, December 19, 2008

Missing the Page, from Mark Twain to Madoff

What's in a name? How about $50 billion? That is the amount that a financier named Bernard Madoff has allegedly disappeared from the assets of banks and investors all over the world, by running a slick variation on an old confidence trick. In the torrent of ink and pixels being devoted to the failure of fund managers to exercise "due diligence" here, I have not seen anyone pause to note that if you listen to words and pick up puns, you might have heard a warning in the name. “Madoff” is pronounced “Made-Off”, as in made-off-with.

Is it crazy to suggest that failing to hear that word clue cost institutions and investors all that money? Far less crazy, and $50 billion less expensive, than how supposedly smart people behaved in ignoring it.

Missing another word clue bankrupted Mark Twain, a story worth recalling and one we can laugh about without pain because it happened in another time and the victim revived. Mark Twain always hoped to make a bundle doing something other than writing or speaking. He thought he saw his chance with the development of a new typesetting machine. Remembering his sweaty days toiling with heavy trays of type in hick print shops, he also dreamed of being present at the creation of a new technology that would make printing speedy and accurateHe was captivated by a man with a plan for a new typesetting machine, an indefatigable self-promoter named James Paige.

As Mark Twain ruefully recalled later, Paige “could persuade a fish to come and take a walk with him.” Mark Twain was soon convinced that Paige’s machine was going to be the biggest thing since Gutenberg, and he drained his bank accounts to become the biggest investor in the project. However, the enterprise was bedeviled by delay after delay, By the time Paige had completed a working prototype, his machine was obsolete, overtaken by new and superior typesetters. Mark Twain lost most of his money in this fiasco.

Now for the word clue that was missed. Mark Twain never seemed to get the name of the inventor or the machine named after him right. I’ve gone through his correspondence and his journal entries on this theme. Again and again, he wrote “Page” instead of “Paige.” Mark Twain had decided to invest all his money in a machine that promised to make printing more accurate. Yet he could never spell the name of the machine or its inventor correctly. Doesn’t it seem that there was a cautionary message here? I’ll bet that with hindsight, Mark Twain would have agreed to the snapper: Notice what’s showing through your slip.

Mark Twain was very near broke when a “chance” encounter introduced him to the man who put him back on his feet. “We were strangers when we met and friends when we parted, half an hour afterward,” he recalled in his Autobiography. “The meeting was accidental and unforeseen but it had memorable and unforeseen consequences for me. He dragged me out of that difficulty and out of the next one.” The meeting took place in the lobby of the Murray Hill Hotel, where Sam’s friend Dr Rice recognized Henry Rogers of Standard Oil. Mark Twain and the forceful capitalist – sometimes called “Hell Hound” Rogers - hit it off. Rogers restructured his business affairs and sheltered him from his creditors until he was finally out of debt.

Plenty of people who failed to hear the clue in “Made-Off” will be hoping for a similar stroke of serendipity.

For more on Mark Twain’s “rhyming life”, see chapter 10 of The Secret History of Dreaming.


Carol said...

I am not particularly good with spelling or pronunciation, but when I read Bernard's name, I hear mad-off. I wonder how he became so "off," and maybe a bit mad. I also watch the news and how angry others are at him, and wonder if he might "off" ( slang for suicide) himself. How do we embrace or not embrace a name? I also wonder if Mark Twain, by not getting a name straight ( Page), was not paying enough attention to his business/ financial self. So many selves.

Robert Moss said...

"Made-off" (as those in the know say) or "Mad-off" (as we might hear it, looking at it in print) - either way, a cautionary name!

Certainly Mark Twain was asleep at the typesetter when he mixed up "Paige" and "Page". And he was a man who was sensitive to names, having chosen his own (from the cry of Mississippi boatmen, signalling "two fathoms", or safe water).

Gretchen said...

Right after I read this blog post I received an email, with the subject "Tufts and Bernard Madoff" in which the following sentence jumped out at me "You have my *word* that we will look closely at this experience." (emphasis added)

A double secret handshake from the universe to be on the lookout for word clues!

Nancy said...

Regarding the James Paige story & Mark Twain's slip of constantly omitting the "i" in his name, if I'm Mark looking to make lots of money with my investment, I should have realized while Paige would produce "pages" (his printing invention would indeed work), there is no "I" in it, in other words, nothing (no reward) for ME !

So who's going to start the "Dreamer's book of Puns"?

wfleet said...

To add to Bernie Made-Off's 50 Billion Degrees of Deception is what I learned to my deep (& illuminating) shock in the '80s. Bernie is so avuncular -- in the holodictionarys we have a few centuries from now, he could be entry # 1 for the adorable ole rumpled uncle look.

In Dick Cavett's '80s interview with the brilliant Texas hotshot lawyer, Racehorse Haynes, Racehorse said something along the lines of "Dick, you with your babyface and dimpled smile could have minced your grandmother with a hatchet and they have it on film from beginning to end and I can get you off the murder charge. This other gent with a dark beard shadow and a 'sinister' cast could have only watered marigolds and rescued butterflys all his life and he will be convicted no matter what I do."

The gist was that people have an inner picture of what a murderer must look like so powerful that mere indisputable facts will not budge it. When I heard Racehorse say this, I thought of how many times one hears of some disgusting serial killer, "But he was such a nice-looking & nice young man. He helped carry in my groceries." And then there's the number of the super-pious who have cloaked their wickedness for years with these veneers.

Certainly none of us would have picked comfy-old-slippers Bernie, Santa's putative younger brother, out of a line-up as a villain. Honestly, don't we unconsciously cut Bernie the Ripper-Off more slack than Abramoff, a recent rotter tho lesser in scale villain, because Bernie is "cuter"? I try to catch myself and cleave to the facts, but the inner picture of villainy is extremely powerful, if more often false than not.

Robert Moss said...

Nancy: "The Dreamer's Book of Puns" is a fabulous idea, and would be the occasion for our rapprochement with Freud, who was keenly alert to puns, though so wrong about so much else, alas. Your perception that the message for Sam Clemens (aka Mark Twain) was that "there's no I in it [the typesetter]" hence "nothing in it for me" is brilliant, and also the kind of brilliance that comes easy when we play our "if it were my dream" games.

Nancy said...

Wfleet, my favorite example of taking the superficial appearance of someone as a clue to the person's character, & being totally off-base, is from Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke. I won't spoil the end-of-story surprise for those who haven't read it, but those who have will know instantly what I'm talking about.

Robert, a key entry in Dreamer's Book of Puns has to be soul & sole (only, or bottom of foot, or a seafood dish: I've encountered all 3). Dreaming is all about soul/sole, is soul/sole food, & is my soul/sole entertainment! Didn't you have a dream where someone served you sole & I said it could be "soul food"? As I remember, both Robyn & I were in it.