It’s January

It’s 15 degrees Fahrenheit (-9 C) tonight in New York City, and it’s supposed to go down to about 9 degrees overnight.  When I was a kid, every winter had three or four days like this, or even colder.  I simply assumed it was part of life.

It’s been getting colder as the week has gone on: time to accustom one’s self to wearing long johns and dressing in layers.  And once you get used to it, it isn’t bad: the cold weather is invigorating.

My work today took me to Long Island via Penn Station.  As I got off the subway, the effluvium of the pizza parlors, hot-dog places, and sandwich shops assaulted me: although some of the individual stores have changed over the years, the overall smell of the place has changed little.

It took me back to a simpler time, when one of the biggest stores in the station concourse was the Station Break arcade.  I could have gone for a couple of games of pinball if it were still around.

Those were the days….

Some Observations

  • Yesterday’s Daily News included a full-page ad from Macy’s, indicating that their one-day sale on Saturday would be extended to a second day on Sunday because of the ‘inclement weather.’  It snowed about two inches in the city over yesterday afternoon and evening, with probably more in the suburbs: not really what qualifies as ‘inclement.’  Considering the lead time in setting up a full-page newspaper ad, I have to believe that Macy’s was going to extend their one-day sale (which was a two-day sale to begin with, as it started Friday) to Sunday from the beginning, and was just betting that since it’s January, it must be snowing somewhere.
  • Our New Fearless Leader released a report claiming that his recovery plan would create between three and four million new jobs.  Unfortunately, there’s no clear description as to just what this plan would consist of.  The same report includes a graphic indicating that the unemployment rate would top out at about 8% with the recovery plan in place, but 9.5% without it.  I’ll agree that a 9.5% unemployment rate is not good, but it’s hardly the end of the world, as everyone seems to make it out to be.
  • I was watching the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man yesterday evening.  The movie is set in about 2020, in a US where, due to ‘the economic collapse of 2017,’ many Americans don’t have a pot to piss in.  Arnold is an honorable Army officer who disobeys an order, is jailed, and eventually can earn his freedom if he participates in The Running Man TV show.  Besides showing Arnold breaking things and killing people, the movie is a commentary on government and the media.  In 2020, the two have converged, and they’re both flaming liars. The really distressing part (sorry for the long setup) is that we’re now two-thirds of the way from 1987 to 2020, and television is very definitely two-thirds of the way from what it was in 1987 to the world of The Running Man.  The concept of gladiatorial combat on TV was radical in 1987; it’s a much smaller step from the state of TV today.  And there was an appetite for the details of politics back then, while today the public would rather do something–anything–than try to understand the real aspects and practical details of politics.

Not the Way, Either

As Our New Fearless Leader is developing his plan to spend hundreds of billions to help the economy, an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Post suggests an alternative: substantially cut Federal taxes to ‘energize the added investments, new hiring and extra risk-taking needed to move our economy’s pace from tepid to torrid.’

I’d like to believe that this would a better approach than Obama’s efforts to remake the country in his own image.  But the short answer is, ‘Isn’t that what our current Fearless Leader was pursuing for eight years, that got us into this mess?’

Either method involves Brobdingnagian (the word ‘huge’ simply doesn’t cut it) deficits, which will have to be paid for in the long run with higher taxes and/or inflation.  Moreover, the rest of the world, which has been subsidizing our deficits for the last few years, has been reluctant to continue, as they need the money for their own problems.

More specifically:

  •  Added investments: in what? Nail salons?  If someone wanted to make a large infrastructure investment, in, say, a power plant, a transmission line, a factory, or a railroad, they would face a daunting gauntlet of regulations and community opposition.  Moreover, investors today want don’t want to wait years to see their profits.  This would be especially true if the tax environment would be expected to change in the next few years.
  • New hiring: only fools hire employees these days.  It’s much cheaper to hire independent contractors or outsource. While hiring someone as a contractor is better than not hiring him at all, part of our problem is that employment is perceived as impermanent: if you believe that you can lose your job at any moment, you’re going to limit your spending to the necessities.
  • Extra risk-taking:  It’s entirely honorable to try, and fail, and take your own lumps.  The problem arises when people take imprudent risks, don’t recognize the initial signs of trouble, fail en masse, and then expect the government to bail them out.

The basic problem underlying our difficulties–which neither Presidential candidate addressed–is that labor is seen as a cost to be minimized, rather than a productive asset to be maintained and developed.  In the modern view of business, employees really are disposable.  And until that changes–which Obama’s plans say nothing about–the outlook will continue to be dismal for those of us who are not on the ‘rich investor’ side of the equation.

All right, what should the government do?

  • Tweak taxes higher for the wealthy:  The Federal government does necessary things that cost money, and someone has to pay for it.  The government also needs to be prepared for emergencies, like war or natural disaster.
  • Act to moderate the very worst effects of the downturn: This includes aid to states and localities, on a limited basis, contingent on the beneficiary exercising its own fiscal restraint.  (The New York legislature, in particular, is off on its own little planet where everything is still rosy, and they can spend to their heart’s content.)  A modest stimulus payment will also help.  One aspect of Obama’s plan that I agree with is tweaking taxes to make them more progressive (lower rates in the lower brackets, higher rates in the higher brackets).
  • Tweak tax policies to encourage business:  For my business, profits are poison: about half of them go up in taxes.  When I had a really good year, I was running around in December buying things for the business, because, as I told people at the time, ‘it’s either spend it or turn it over to the government.’ I can run my business to limit profits and pay less tax, but it keeps the business weak, as it can’t amass capital.
  • Otherwise, sit tight and sweat it out:   We got into this snit as a result of our collective delusions, and it will take time to recover.  If we try to maintain our delusions through deficit spending, it will take us that much longer to get over them.  We did it before, in the 1980s, when we had both inflation and unemployment: under Reagan, unemployment surged at first, but things came back into balance shortly after.

OK, I still haven’t done anything about the bean-counters who see labor as a cost to be reduced.  I don’t believe that any reasonable government can directly change people’s attitudes.

However, it will lead us away from being fat, dumb, and happy, and will hopefully make us better and more productive employees.  If the bean-counters see labor as a better value for their dollar, they might be re-awakened to the value of employees as assets.

Of course, all of this will be painful in the short term, which is why it will never happen.

Can I Have My Vote Back?

No, I know that I can’t.

And I can’t say that it would make any difference if I could: New York is not a swing state, so even if I could change my vote, and get all my friends to change their vote, it wouldn’t make any difference.

And furthermore, even if McCain had won the election, I’m not sure he would be able to do anything different.

But I found President-elect Obama to be thoroughly distressing when he discussed the economy earlier this week and told us that we would be running trillion-dollar deficits for ‘years to come.’

Yes, the economy is in bad shape: the official unemployment rate in December went up to 7.2%.  I’ve written about various aspects of our bad economy in these pages before.

But Our New Fearless Leader looks like a kid in a candy store.  It’s not just an effort to stimulate the economy: he wants to remake the country in his own image.  We’ll have solar energy and computerized medical records and better education and broadband access for all and no rainy days on weekends.

Unfortunately, the government has tried to remake the country, or some facet of it, and failed miserably.  Alternate energy is an admirable goal, but after three decades (at least) of government meddling, we still import more than half of the petroleum that we use.  The Clinton administration tried to implement a national health care system.  It failed miserably.  For my part, I couldn’t understand how it was supposed to work: something about ‘alliances’ with ‘clout’ to get the lowest prices.

And a look back to our recent events is more troubling: in September, we allocated ~$700 billion to ‘unfreeze the credit markets’ by ‘buying troubled assets.’  Since then, about half of the money has been spent: none of it went to buy troubled assets, and the credit markets are still frozen.  (I’ve stopped getting pre-approved credit card notices, so I’m sure there’s something wrong.)

So I’m not convinced that the answer to our problem whose origins are in too much debt is to take out yet more debt, and to do it RIGHT NOW.  Let’s take the time to think things through: if we’re going to spend trillions, we need to make sure that we get it right, as we won’t get another chance.

Hundreds of Channels…

…but nothing on!

I’m working nights this week, which leads me to try and sleep at irregular hours, and when I want to sleep, somehow I can’t.  So I turn on the tube, but I find myself bitterly disappointed.

Last year, I found myself interested in some of the reality shows that showed people doing real jobs, like Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers.  But those have mostly disappeared in recent months, with nothing appealing to replace them.

I found myself watching Crime Scene Investigation in all its flavors, but that began to pall after a while.  The writers and directors of CSI took my seventh-grade English teacher’s dictum to ‘show us, not tell us’ literally, so that as someone explains how the crime might have been committed, we see the process unfolding in all its gory glory.   And I’m really not into stories that revolve around criminals.

This week I’ve hit rock bottom, in that the only thing I find semi-interesting is the History Channels ‘Armageddon Week,’ filled with pseudo-documentaries about how the world is imminently coming to an end, as predicted in the Book of Revelation or by Nostradamus or whatever, coupled with scientific explanations of how all these horrible things might occur.

If I were a kid, it would give me nightmares.

But now, it’s just tedious.

Caroline Kennedy

Now that our esteemed Senator Clinton will be moving on to bigger things as Secretary of State in the Obama administration, the next question is who will fill her Senate seat. That responsibility lies with Governor Paterson, who can name someone to fill her seat on an interim basis until a special election can be held in 2010.

Senator Clinton, in spite of everyone who complained that she was a ‘carpetbagger,’ managed to be an effective Senator for New York, and in these difficult times, we need an effective replacement.

Caroline Kennedy, JFK’s daughter, has been proposed in the press as a plausible candidate.  And on many of the measures of what would make a good Senator, she scores well.  She has written about the Constitution; she knows many of the players; and as the daughter of  a President, those who don’t know her will be more inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt.

And yet…

Are we becoming a country where your political future is determined by your surname?  The principle would have been odious to the Founding Fathers, but we came this close to having a second Clinton follow Bush, then Clinton, then Bush.

More basically, as far as our next Senator, is there nobody else out there who can do the job? I know that I’d be a rotten Senator: I have no patience for committees and very little tolerance for bushwa.  But I’m sure that there’s at least one other person out there who would be a plausible candidate.

Or are we really that short on talent?

Underrated Bond

For Christmas, my son bought me the last installment of the collection of original James Bond movies (Sean Connery through Pierce Brosnan).  The package included On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with George Lazenby as Bond.  I suspect that it didn’t do well at the box office, and Lazenby did not reappear in the next movie (Sean Connery returned in Diamonds Are Forever).  I saw the movie once on the tube as a teenager: the rest of the movie seemed OK, but the ending was a terrible downer.

After my recent experience with Quantum of Solace, it was time for a fresh viewing.  And if you simply disregard the last two minutes, it turns out that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is actually a good movie.  Among James Bond movies, it’s solidly in the middle of the pack, safely above the dogs: Thunderball, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy,  and Licence to Kill.

It’s even better than the current film, Quantum of Solace.  Telly Savalas is Blofeld, a villain with a real plan for world domination, unlike the business-school wannabes of Quantum.  There’s just enough violence to make us feel the situation that Bond is experiencing, unlike the newer pictures in which Bond is the Energizer Bunny, waltzing through machine-gun fire.  And the instrumental theme music kicks ass, even almost 40 years later, while the theme from Quantum is, well, mush.

George Lazenby is actually a good Bond.  He would have been better if the scriptwriters hadn’t confused James Bond with Derek Flint.  And unfortunately, he was saddled with what is probably the lamest Bond-movie gadgets ever: an automatic safe-opener that requires a half-hour to work, and a photocopier.  But he presents himself well.  OK, he still comes in last, but he’s in very strong company.  I wouldn’t have minded seeing him again.

But the ending (or more specifically, the end of the ending) is so bad as to be throughly stupid: one of the basic tenets of the old-school Bond film is that it ends on a high note, with Our Hero saving the world yet again, and running off with the girl.  The current generation of Bond films with Daniel Craig don’t follow this convention, but at least leave one with a sense of accomplishment.

So dust it off and watch it, but find something else to do for the last two minutes.

Merry Christmas

It’s a little late, I know, but Merry Christmas to all.  Or Happy Holidays.  Or whatever.  I hope all is well for whomever might be reading.

Christmas was pretty quiet in our house; we had a nice dinner for Christmas Eve, and on Thursday, my wife and I went to church, and we went with the choir to a home for the sick and sang some Christmas songs, to spread a little holiday cheer.

We performed the music first during the church service, and my wife introduced the songs in Korean.  Afterwards, she asked me to introduce the songs in English when we went to the home for the sick.  I live it when she drops things like that on me.  But the performance went well.

I had done a lot of running around on Wednesday (‘Why didn’t you do some of that beforehand?’ my wife asked), and Friday was a day of rest.  Today, we’ll probably go shopping, taking advantage of the after-Christmas sales. 

We’ve Been Had!

Yesterday’s news report noted that the Federal Reserve Bank was reducing the federal funds rate to the range of zero to 0.25%.  And in the next breath, the newscaster noted that the Fed was going to spend $2 trillion to buy up assets.  (‘They’d buy up Picassos if they thought it would help the economy,’ a commentator quipped.)

A couple of months ago, we were told that the world would come to an end if Congress didn’t pass a measure allocating $750 billion for the purpose of purchasing ‘toxic’ assets.  Since then, some of the money has been spent buying ownership stakes in banks, and the White House has been contemplating using some of the money to help the automobile manufacturers, but none of it was actually used to buy assets, i.e. what it was allocated for.

So now we have the Fed running around buying assets.

Does this mean that the Fed could have done this at any time, and it didn’t need an allocation from Congress?

(No, not at any time.  Only when it was funny.)

Then what was the point of the $750 billion that we needed to save the world–half of which is still sitting there, and the other half was used for stuff that had nothing to do with the purpose it was allocated for?

Our leadership is either fantastically stupid, or they’re robbing us blind.

And my problem is, from my perspective, I can’t discern which of those alternatives is actually the case.

Just Wondering…

At this point, we’ve all seen the video of Our Fearless Leader’s recent press conference in Baghdad, an which an Iraqi reporter threw his shoes at President Bush.  (The shoes missed; nobody was hurt.)  The Iraqi government wants to throw him in jail for several years, but he’s a local hero in his neighborhood for standing up to power.

Does this mean that, much like travelers at US airports, reporters at Presidential press conferences will be henceforth required to remove their shoes?

Auto Bailout

I was out on another business trip last week, to the same place I went in November.  It wasn’t practical to write, chiefly because the people there are given to working long days: on average, we started a little after 9:00 am and finished around 7:00 pm.  They’re aware of the economic crisis, and that it will befall them eventually, but it hasn’t quite seeped to their part of the world yet.  Some companies have made cutbacks, but life is quite clearly going on.

Meanwhile, the big question in this country is the bailout for the old-line American automobile manufacturers.  A bailout plan passed the House last week, but stalled in the Senate.  The  Bush administration contemplated using money from an earlier bailout scheme for financial institutions to help the car companies, but then decided to hold off.

From my perspective, General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler have been basket cases for years.  An infusion of cash will only prolong the agony.  And Federal aid with strings attached, in the form of requirements for gas mileage or environmental protection or something similar, results in the government trying to run the automobile industry, which is probably the only thing worse than the current management.  (A big part of the crisis now befalling us has its origins in regulations to get banks to open up lending to minorities, in the name of civil rights.)

Consider: if the price of gasoline stays low, people will want bigger cars.  I don’t like sport-utility vehicles: they drive like buses and are hard to park in the city.  But it’s a free country, and if people want them, and are prepared to pay for them, it’s their privilege to own and drive them.  The natural response of an automobile company would be to make bigger cars to match the demand.  The non-Big Three car companies, unconstrained by their bailouts, will happily comply.

For GM, Ford, and Chrysler, and their government handlers, the question then becomes whether to do what is economically prudent, but politically incorrect, or to press on with more efficient cars that nobody really wants.

Beyond that, the most compelling reason that anyone can come up for ‘saving’ the Big Three, after the effects on the economy, is that they are icons of American industry.  Alas, the icons did it to themselves.  The GM, Ford, and Chrysler that we knew are gone: refinancing their shadows won’t bring them back.

So part of me wants to simply pull the plug on them.  If they went broke, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  It would hurt, but the wheels of commerce would grind on, and their assets would go on to bigger and better things.

And yet….

It’s true that the other car companies are have productive advantages over the Big Three: they have newer factories, a better capacity for innovation, and lower labor costs.  But  what about the unproductive advantages?

The Big Three built their factories generations ago, on land that they bought, either with cash on hand, or by borrowing on their own account.  They pay taxes, when and as they are profitable (maybe not now, but the principle is there).   They considered themselves corporate citizens, with generally the same responsibilities as ‘natural person’ citizens.  While they lobbied against taxes and regulations that affected their operations, they accepted whatever was ultimately resolved into law.

A company that wants to construct a large industrial plant today will comparison-shop among the locations where it might build.  But beyond that, it will negotiate with state and local governments for tax abatements and benefits for its operation.  After all, only damned fools pay full price.

And once the abatements and benefits are gone, the modern company is free to pull up stakes and start the whole process over.

To what extent does this difference resolve into the survival or the failure of the Big Three?  If it really does make a difference, then perhaps some measure of government help is called for.  If, however, the tax abatements and other goodies represent only a minimal investment of ‘seed money,’ as the proponents of such measures suggest,  then whatever rescue we might prepare for the Big Three will only be throwing good money after bad.

But does this mean that the old-school approach of the Big Three to build a factory, stay put, and be part of the community, as we expect of good corporate citizens, is one of the quaint practices that led them to ruin?

Perhaps….

Black Friday

Today’s newspapers, like last Saturday’s, brought news of a gruesome death: a Wal-Mart employee on Long Island was fatally trampled by shoppers when opening the store yesterday morning.

Yesterday was Black Friday, when we’re all supposed to go out and buy stuff.  And I missed it.

As near as I can tell, we started calling the day after Thanksgiving ‘Black Friday’ about ten years ago.  Before that, it was simply a day that most of us had off from work, possibly given over to shopping, but mostly for hanging with one’s relatives, rest, and recovery from excess turkey ingestion.

But somehow it became all about the shopping.  And since no marketing phenomenon is complete without a catchy name, we called it ‘Black Friday,’ in a paroxysm of political correctness, in which the color ‘black’ is divorced from its usual sense in Western culture of death and destruction.

Of course I looked over the deals that were in Thursday’s papers: each newspaper came with an advertising supplement bigger than the newspaper itself.  But there was nothing that I really wanted.  As far as big-ticket items, we’d all like a new TV set, but the sets we have are serviceable.  If they were offering a nice TV for $100, I might have made the trip, but the sets that I was considering were going for $700, down from $1,000 or so.  And I’d like a computer to replace my desktop machine, which I bought in 1999, but that will have to wait until I’m feeling flush.

In any case, I had work to do at the office, and money is tight this month.  So I went in to work, and enjoyed the productive peace and quiet.

Happy Thanksgiving

First of all, Happy Thanksgiving to whoever might be reading this.

It was another quiet Thanksgiving in our house.  We don’t go visiting relatives: my wife and I are both only children; our parents have all passed away; our other relatives don’t live nearby.

For many years, I didn’t have much to do with my relatives.  It wasn’t that I had anything against them, but later I understood that my relatives thought there was something vaguely wrong with me.  Or maybe it’s just that we have don’t have much in common.
So for Thanksgiving it was just my wife, my son, and myself.  I think I like it that way.

This morning, I made a traditional dinner.  I cooked the turkey according to the directions on the Butterball Web site, and it came out slightly overcooked.  Not terribly badly, but a little bit dry: it would have been better if I had taken it out of the oven about 20 minutes earlier.
I have to believe that the lawyers have figured out that nobody will sue them for an overcooked bird, but people will sue for an undercooked bird that makes them sick.  The published cooking times are therefore overly long for their protection.

In the evening, we went to see the new James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.  The ‘rebooted’ Bond, in his second outing, has already gotten tiresome.  Whereas the old-school Bonds (Connery through Brosnan) got by on their wits and Q’s clever gizmos, Daniel Craig’s Bond is simply indestructible.  If you try to shoot him, he wil simply bounce out of the way.  It was clever at first, and now it’s just repetitive.

Quantum is, apparently, a secret organization of powerful men who hold meetings during live opera.  And their sinister plan for world domination is actually a part of the normal business-school curriculum (How to Screw Over Third-World Peasants).

So are they really villains after all?

Even the Bond-movie-as-travelogue disappoints: we’re told that Bond is traveling to Haiti and Bolivia, when in fact, the scenes in those countries are actually shot in Mexico, Panama, and Chile.

Perhaps I can’t go home again.

In a Funk

Last week, I was on a most remarkable business trip.  I was sitting in a park there, starting to write up my observations, when something happened that caused me to reconsider everything I was thinking.  I’m going back again in the near future, and will write about it then.

But since returning on Monday, and in spite of the business-class seat on the airplane on which I could actually sleep, I’ve been in a funk.  I’ve been tired and not wanting to do very much.  And in all, it’s been a crappy week:

  • My PDA phone seems to have failed.  The battery, which used to be good for 3-4 days, barely lasts one day now, and about 70% of the time that I try to make a call, it fails.  I’m back to using my old phone for communication.  I know that I can probably get a replacement if I go to the AT&T store in midtown, but beyond that, the PDA phone hasn’t been as useful as I imagined it.
  • New York State is going broke, but the Legislature doesn’t want to do anything about it.  Both the Democrats and the Republicans are beholden to the public employee unions, and so will not do anything that would inconvenience the civil service.
  • It was another barf bag week for Dow Jones, with the Industrials closing below 8,000 on Wednesday and Thursday night before gaining ground on Friday.
  • In yesterday’s paper, there was a report of something that I knew would happen someday, but hoped never would: a young man killed himself while broadcasting the experience over the Web.  He took an overdose of sleeping pills and tranquilizers, and it was only after a few hours of watching him immobile in his bed that something seemed wrong.
  • And the Sunday Daily News, which cost $1 since the 1980s, went up today to $1.25.

This week can only be an improvement!

Enough already!

Today’s Daily News, for at least the third time in the last seven days, includes a supplement with big pictures of Barack Obama.  Today we’re treated to the famply photo album, with pictures of our next President as a little kid, then growing up, and with his wife and family.  And even the New York Post, which supported McCain, is running photo spreads of Obama.

We get it: he’s the President-elect, and he’s good-looking.  We already know what he looks like.  He’s married, and his wife and family are good-looking too.

For my part, it’s another passel of waste paper that I’ll ultimately have to bind up and throw away.

It’s not that I’m against Obama.  I voted for him, and I wish him success as President.  We will all suffer if he fails.  (And thereby hangs another tale, perhaps for another day.)

But I can’t remember similar photo spreads for previous Prseidents-elect.  And somehow I can’t imagine the same treatment for McCain and his family if he had won the election.

During the campaign, the New York Post used to chirp about media bias in favor of Obama.  For my part, I found that the media (newspapers, TV news, etc.) was almost useless in helping to understand the positions of either candidate.  For me, the best source of information was the debates, where the candidates were able to explain their positions at length themselves.

Although I don’t have the data, I believe that many journalists are liberals: they see misery in the world around them, and perhaps believe that the government should do something about it.  But in this campaign, I didn’t see very much bias in reporting the substance: the details of both candidates’ plans were uniformly treated with disdain.

There is, however, a substantial bias in favor of the photogenic and the telegenic.   On the Republican side, Sarah Palin seemed to snag far more news coverage than McCain.  And on the Democratic side, Joe Biden, Obama’s running mate, was almost the steath candidate, appeaqring very infrequently in news reports.

I have to wonder what would have happened if the Democrats had nominated an elderly war hero, and the Republicans had nominated a charming, attractive young man….

It’s All Over/Stupid Bridge Games

I headed out bright and early Tuesday morning to pull the lever for Barack Obama.  The polling place was busy, but curiously, nobody was waiting to vote in my district, so I got in and out fast.  So that’s that.

And yet…

Some years ago, I read Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and wondered at the political landscape where the struggling Kansans would consistently vote Republican, despite the fact that Republican policies were taking their jobs and leaving them worse off.

A New York Post op-ed piece at the time suggested that the Kansans were simply looking out for their own self-interest: they wanted to pay lower taxes.  But it’s more than that.

The United States used to stand for the idea of a place with limited government where one could work hard, compete fairly, and succeed.  The rest of the world probably still believes that, to some degree.  But for those of us who live here, it seems rather different.  I’ve speculated about the causes for that in these pages, and so won’t rehash that here.

I live in the city, and I’m pragmatic: I see that the changes around us under the Republicans (not necessarily initiated by the government, but encouraged by its free-market policies) are changing our country into something that we Americans are not necessarily morally, emotionally, or mentally prepared to face: a new era of competition for all of us.

So I’ll vote for Obama, to take a step away from that.  But it is a step away from what the United States traditionally stood for, and, yes, a step in the direction of socialism.

On the other hand, in cherishing what we stood for, unlike the Kansans of Franks’ book, I wouldn’t (and didn’t) vote for McCain as the more ‘true American’ alternative.  McCain is for big government too, just in a slightly different flavor.

But now I understand where the Kansans are coming from.

*          *          *

The MTA, our local transportation agency, is renaming what we always knew as the Triborough Bridge as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.  The name refers to a group of toll bridges that connect Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.

We’ve known for some time that the MTA is in dire financial straits: another subway and bus fare hike seems inevitable for next year.  So why are they spending hundreds of thousands (and perhaps millions) of dollars to rename a bridge that had a perfectly good (and functional) name to begin with?

Making the Choice

About two weeks ago, one of my colleagues sent me this cartoon:

A Democrat…

My immediate reaction was that, well, my colleague is a Republican.   But there’s a little bit more to it than that.

I know that giving to those who are ‘too lazy’ doesn’t work.  Despite the best intentions, it engenders laziness and corrodes personal honor.

But what happens when the world changes, and those who did not set out to be lazy find themselves in dire straits?  Unemployment is creeping up, and jobs are hard to find.  The eight-hour workday, for many, is a quaint relic of the past.  And almost every night on the news, there is a report of some large corporation or another firing a few thousand staffers.  For my part, I left my last job (and went into business for myself) because I was expected to give over my weekends for unpaid overtime, and was still in the doghouse with management for overrunning my budget.

Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for President, proposes to reduce taxes for most of us, while increasing taxes on those earning over $250k per year and closing corporate loopholes.  It doesn’t solve the real problem, but it helps.  One aspect of Obama’s plan is that more people in the lower income levels would actually receive a tax credit instead of paying Federal income taxes.

The New York Post calls that ‘welfare.’  Perhaps, but a refundable tax credit is not enough to live on; it’s just intended to make life a little easier.  As long as the tax credit is tied to some actual earned income, it’s not going to erode the value of work.

To take the contrary view, that of the Republicans, is to redefine ‘lazy.’  If you want to go out and work, even if it’s physically demanding, you’re still ‘lazy’ if you expect your employer, in return for your efforts, to take care of you through health insurance or other benefits, or you expect to be able to have a working life that allows you time for your own pursuits.

The major problem with this view is that most of us were not brought up to be entrepreneurs and be comfortable taking risks.  We may like the sensation of risk–such as one experiences when bungee jumping or skydiving–but those activities, with their redundant safety measures, are probably safer than crossing the street, and do not prepare us to manage risk in our lives.

While many of us may have set up lemonade stands when we were kids, I can’t remember taking a course in high school or college about the basic principles of business.  (There were courses in economics, which is not the same thing.)  And I wonder how our young people, who live in constant communication with each other with their cell phones and their computers, will adapt to the process of going into business for one’s self, which is intensly personal and involves, to a surprising extent, being able to keep secrets.

But that is what lies before us under the Republicans.   And in that direction, to take the zeroth-degree approximation, lies armed revolution: we will learn to be violent before we learn to be businessmen. Actually, we already know how to be violent, so it won’t be a big leap.

And that is why, despite my misgivings about Barack Obama, I will pull the lever for him tomorrow.

Breaking the Law

It’s been another week where one needs a barf bag to follow the stock market.  Perhaps the market is beginning to stabilize, and the reality may be sinking in that the party is over, and we’ll have to go back to earning a living.  I hope so, anyway.

The rightist New York Post blames the economic crisis of the past weeks on Democratic politicians who encoursged banks to make mortgage loans to people who couldn’t afford them.  Both of the Presidential candidates lay the blame with greedy Wall Streeters who profitied from financial instruments that they didn’t really understand.

And both of those are true.  Those who say that Wall Street should be hoisted on its own petard, instead of being bailed out by the government, conveniently ignore that the government does not have clean hands in this matter.  Part of what genuinely worries me about this issue is that since everyone (politicians who encouraged bad lending, irresponsible borrowers, the banks that lent the money, and the Wall Streeters who believed that they could engineer the risk out of the whole affair) got us into this mess through their bad judgement, who will have the smarts to get us out of it?

But underneath it all, with 20/20 hindsight, it seems that everyone forgot a basic rule of economics: that the value of something, over the long term, determines its price, and not the other way around.  When the price of something becomes separated from its value, bad things happen.  It led to the Dutch tulip panic of years ago, to the stock market crash of the 1920s, and to the current economoc crisis.

Yes, the politicians encouraged banks to make loans to questionable borrowers in the 1990s, in the name of civil rights.  But if that was all that had happened, it would not have resulted in the situation before us.

But these loans were available to everyone, and many people took advantage of them, driving up the price of real estate.  It’s a funny thing: when the price of a loaf of bread or a gallon of gasoline shoots up, people get upset, but when the price of houses goes up, everyone’s happier because they think they’re getting richer.

Meanwhile, the underlying value of the property hadn’t really changed: the houses didn’t grow new bedrooms.  They were the same buildings, still where they were before, in neighborhoods that hadn’t really changed.   But somehow everyone believed that the rising prices reflected rising values, and that wealth was therefore being fabricated out of thin air.

Ultimately, even bankers and businessmen with normally good judgement bought into the charade, putting up new real estate developments into an overextended market.

And then the music stopped, and prices moved back into alignment with the underlying values.  Beyond the irresponsible borrowers who couldn’t pay their mortgages, even more responsible people might simply walk away from a house with a $500,000 mortgage if the property is only worth $300,000.

And now we have to pick up the pieces….

The Blame Game

Once upon a time, I was a manager in a rather large organization.  From time to time, things would go wrong, but somehow, it seemed impolite to suggest that someone or some department was responsible for what had happened.

“Blame is not a useful management concept,” I used to say.  I was trying to be facetious, but it surprised me how often people believed me.

The thought came back to me in recent weeks as I’ve watched the saga of the financial meltdown on the tube.  Although, informally, the editorial pages and the Presidential candidates have blamed greedy community activists and greedy Wall Streeters, there has been no official effort, as far as I can tell, to assess who or what was responsible for the financial crisis.

And after a week of downward lurches, the stock market shot up over 900 points today.  So I guess everything’s rosy again, and we can go back to being fat, dumb, and happy.

And we still won’t properly understand how we got into this mess.

And we still won’t properly understand how to avoid it in the future.

A Peaceful Weekend

The news for the last few weeks has been a relentless saga of the economy and how we’re supposed to be in terrible trouble.  Congress passed, and the President signed, a plan to provide $700 billion to help ‘unfreeze’ credit markets.  Ever since that happened, the stock market has gone down every day.

For my part, things seem unchanged.  Some time ago, in an idle moment, I made a loan application at the bank: they denied it, saying that they could not lend to the company with its present management.  (I’m surprised they didn’t say something unsavory about my mother!)  Since then, I’ve financed my business out of the till.  Meanwhile, at least twice a week, I receive an application for a ‘pre-approved’ credit card.

Yesterday, my wife and I went to Governor’s Island, a place shrouded in mystery: it was once an Army base, and then a Coast Guard base, and was off-limits to the public.  Even now, the island is only accessible during spring and summer weekends.  We visited in 2006, and looked inside many of the historic buildings.  Our visit on Saturday was motivated by an art exhibition.

But first, we wanted to explore a little.  We started walking, but then discovered a plase that rented four-wheeled pedal vehicles.  It was fun: it hit my bicycle spot, but my wife (who never learned to ride) could share the experience with me.  We rode around the island, mostly staying close to the water, looking out at New York Harbor on a gloriously clear day.

“Tiring, wasn’t it?” the rental guy asked me when I returned it.

No, it  was invigorating.

The actual art exhibit was a disappointment: everything that gives modern art a bad name.  Still, it was nice to set aside all of the troubles of the world, and the economy, and the upcoming Presidential elections, to share a pleasant sunny Saturday with my wife.

Today was another Sunday workday, and I rode my bicycle to work in the office.  The weather was nice, if a little warm for mid-October, and the endorphins were flowing.

‘Maverick’ and ‘Reformer’?

We’re told the John McCain, the Republican candidate for President, is a ‘maverick’ who won’t necessarily follow the traditional Republican orthodoxy, and a ‘reformer’ who will stop corruption. After eight years of Our Fearless Leader, it sounds like a refreshing change. But is it?

McCain was long known as a hell-raiser who wanted his own way. In the Naval Academy, he graduated near the bottom of his class, not so much for poor grades, but for accruing large numbers of demerits for breaking the rules. Nobody has said this, but I will: could it be that the flippant and careless attitude that he had towards the Academy rules carried forward to his active duty, and was part of the reason he was captured by the enemy?

In 2000, McCain ran a moderate Republican candidate, and was derailed in one of the early primaries, in South Carolina, by an aggressive smear campaign. In early 2001, he even contemplated leaving the Republican party. But since then, he has followed the Republican line very closely. Today, despite the ‘maverick’ persona, he is a clone of Our Fearless Leader in terms of his actual decisions.

Through 2007 and early 2008, his candidacy for President seemed moribund, but then it was suddenly resuscitated. Perhaps the Republican leadership realized that there would be a backlash in their base against voting for a Mormon (Romney), and that they would have difficulty getting swing voters to go for a former preacher (Huckabee). McCain still had the glow of being a contrarian, even though he wasn’t any more, and he’s old, and could be expected to delegate much of the work of being President to his subordinates.

As far has his actual tendencies as a reformer, he is against ‘pork-barrel’ politics, where politicians get money voted for their favorite projects. It’s the closest that one can come to legally sticking one’s hand in the cookie jar of public money, and it’s odious.

Until you consider the alternative. In the wake of the initial destruction of the Iraq war, we spent billions of dollars to rebuild the place. As a practical matter, we had the moral responsibility to do that after busting the place up. Since there is no Congressional district that covers Iraq, this was not an instance of pork. No one stood up in Congress and said that Baghdad needed a new generator for its airport.

Instead, the money was dished out through an army of bureaucrats, without clear guidelines. Large firms with political ties snared the biggest contracts. Phantom contractors appeared to take the money and run. (I missed my calling: why do I have to work hard to function as a real contractor in New York City, when I could have easily been a fake one in Iraq?) Much of the work was poorly constructed, and over half the money was effectively pissed away, with nothing to show for it.

And this is better than pork-barrel spending…how?

Wild Week on Wall Street

This past week saw great upheavals in the economy as the great investment banks and brokerage firms either collapsed in bankruptcy or were hastily sold off to more solvent institutions. AIG, a large insurance company, was bought out by the Feds midweek.

The stock market lurched up and down through the week, and late Thursday, the government announced a plan to buy upwards of a half trillion (that’s ‘trillion’ with a ‘t’) dollars of bad mortgages. And somehow, that made things all better: the market went up on Friday, and ended the week only a tick down.

Whew, that was close, but now it’s over. Or is it?

On one level, it makes sense: if we’re able to function with a national debt of $10 trillion, upping it to $10.5T or even $11T is only an incremental change.

But for the government to pump all that money into the economy in a short time will almost certainly be inflationary. No: it is inflationary, by definition. But the question is: has the economy been thirsting for cash for so long that the money will bring things into balance, or will prices shoot up as a result?

At best, we’ll get ourselves back to where we were perhaps two years ago, before the ‘housing crisis’ manifested itself. But I doubt that we will go back anytime soon to what we recognize as prosperity: where almost everyone who was physically and mentally able could find a job that paid a living wage and left one the time and energy to enjoy the non-work aspects of life.

This is because, in the view of the MBAs who run things, paying an employee more than is strictly necessary to keep him, or hiring more employees than will barely get the job done, represents wasted money and a lapse of profitability. And they continue to believe this, even though they are not exempt from their own bean counting: they can’t see what it’s doing to themselves.

An infusion of taxpayer funds won’t change that. And even the choice of the next President won’t change it, either.

Remembering 11 September

Seven years ago last Thursday, Islamic terrorists in hijacked jetliners destroyed the World Trade Center, damaged the Pentagon, and brought the War on Terror upon us.  And so we remember the dead, pray for the living, and moan about the crappy replacements the politicians are serving up to replace the majestic Twin Towers and the glacial pace of their progress.

And then what?

We’re supposed to be intelligent: when some problem befalls us, we’re supposed to study it, learn from it, and do better in the future.

An article of faith among conservatives seems to be that we were the innocent victims of the 11 September attacks.  Obama, and the Democrats in general, are full of self-hatred when they declare that we brought it on ourselves.

As a gross approximation, it’s probably accurate to say that we were innocent victims that fateful day.  But the fact is that we, the United States, built Osama bin Laden to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, and we built Saddam Hussein to fight the Iranians.   While we were indeed victims, we were not quite as innocent as we’d like to imagine.

And since we’re not that innocent, we should have been more careful.  The signs were there that something was afoot: the President was briefed a month earlier that bin Laden was potentially preparing to attack us.  Now the report didn’t say that he would have his henchmen hijack airplanes on 11 September and fly them into things, but a word to the wise is sufficient.

But then again, one could plausibly believe that our leadership wanted the attacks of 11 September to take place, for their own political ends.  But in that case, in the long run, the responsibility for addressing this abuse of power lies not with our leadership, but with ourselves: we still have a representative government, and we still have the right to vote.

And it certainly seems possible that our leadership wanted the terrorist attacks to happen as a pretext not only for war, but also for curtailing our civil rights and for torture.  Yes, it’s a new kind of war and a new kind of enemy.  But I’d like to believe that we’re better than such things.

But maybe we’re not.

And maybe that’s what I have to learn.

Off the Fence for Obama

Like everyone else with half a brain in this country, I’ve been looking at the Presidential candidates and trying to decide whom I should vote for in November.

I’ve started with the premise, among others, that Iraq is off the table as an issue.  There is an agreement in place with the Iraqi government on how we will withdraw our forces over time, and while the initial decision to go to Iraq was a spectacularly bad judgement, neither of the present candidates was specifically responsible for it.

The Democrats are running Barack Obama, a wonderful orator with big plans for how the government will help us.  He grants that these plans will cost money, and proposes to pay for them by eliminating tax loopholes for businesses, and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire.  His approach to foreign policy emphasizes the use of diplomacy over military force.

The Republicans are running John McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war who has the vibe of being a ‘maverick.’  On the other hand, his actual votes in the Senate track very closely the Bush administration’s desires.  He wants to keep the tax cuts and considers the world a dangerous place, where the use of force is a real consideration.

Part of me really wants to vote for McCain.  I believe that he has better judgement than Bush, I don’t like taxes (who does?), and I’m genuinely skeptical of big government plans to help people, because I’ve seen them backfire.

On the other hand, a government, like a household or a company, has to take in enough money to maintain itself and do the things it does.  And maintaining a strong military and being prepared to use it aren’t cheap.  Moreover, I don’t buy into the thought that lowering tax rates will stimulate economic activity to the point where the government will take in more money than if it had left taxes alone: if taxes were oppressively high, as they were a generation ago, it might be true, but not now.

In the second quarter of 2008, the US economy grew by 2.1%, so that we can officially say that we’re not in a recession, but shed over 500,000 jobs. Who wins and who loses when that happens?

And what good does it do to make ourselves safe from terrorists if most of us end up worse off in terms of our daily standard of living, in a country that is becoming no longer the land of opportunity?

McCain will do nothing to stop this.  Obama will at least try.

For this reason, despite my misgivings, I’ve decided to vote for Barack Obama in the next election.

But God help us, either way….

Exercises in Futility

I set up a Simple IRA plan at my business, and my first contribution went through this week: $504.

If I’m able to keep that up, every two weeks, that’s about $13,000/year, and I’ll be a millionaire in 76 years.  OK: that’s not quite realistic; it doesn’t consider the magic of compound interest.  So it’ll take maybe thirty-something years.

But I’ll be an old man by then, and before that, the government will insist that I start making withdrawals.  Moreover, by then, a million dollars will probably be half a month’s rent.
Still, I have to at least try,

*          *          *

The electric bill arrived yesterday, and I actually felt good about it before I opened it.

During the winter, our monthly electric bill is typically $70-80.  We have a modest apartment in terms of size, and although we don’t make any great efforts to be ‘green,’ we try not to be too wasteful.

The July bill was for about $165, and reflected the first month of heavy air-conditioner use,  This was in line with past years, so it didn’t really bother me.

Then the August bill came in at $220, a new record.  We had gotten lazy, and in particular, on some days I just wanted to sit in front of the air conditioner and not do anything.   I told my wife and son about the bill, and we all made some effort to reduce our use.  Moreover, the worst of the summer heat had passed.

So when I opened the bill this morning, I expected that it would be in the $120-130 range.  But no: it was $195.  We used 15% less electricity than in the July bill, but will have to pay 18% more.

Of Pigs and Presidents

While on the campaign trail, Barack Obama remarked, with regard to the Republican effort to appear as reformers, “You can put lipstick on a pig, and it’s still a pig.”

The Republicans took the remark as a slur against their Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, who remarked that she was a ‘pit bull with lipstick’ in her speech last week.  Obama’s remarks made the front page in today’s papers.

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.  But wouldn’t it be nice if we could get past this silly stuff and actually discuss the issues?

Labor Day Parade

My wife asked me to join her in the Labor Day parade today, which this year was held yesterday, the Saturday after Labor Day.  She’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild.  My previous time in the parade was in 1982, when I was a newly-minted member of the Transport Workers Union.

The announcement from SAG indicated that the first 25 members to show up would get a free T-shirt.  My wife and I arrived late, but she was #18 on the list, and even though I’m not a member, I got one too.  I’m not an actor: I just play one for the Labor Day parade.

Tropical Storm Hanna,  which had threatened to douse the city all day, held off until mid-afternoon.  It didn’t rain, but it was really, really muggy.  Still, it was a festive occasion, walking up Fifth Avenue.

However, there were very few spectators.  Along the 28 blocks, there were perhaps a couple of hundred people who seemed to be actually watching the parade.  Foot traffic on Fifth Avenue was about normal for late on a Saturday morning,  In recent years, interest in the parade has flagged: is it that the parade didn’t take place on Labor Day (and why is that?), loss of interest in labor unions, or that parades aren’t enough of a public spectacle to hold a crowd anymore?  (When I was with the Transport Workers in 1982, it was really on Labor Day, and there were a good few thousand spectators.)

Many of the parade participants wore Obama for President buttons, and Obama posters appeared on some of the floats.  Of course, Barack Obama, as the Democratic candidate, is favored by the labor unions because he proposes to use government to help the working people.

And why not?  Over the last eight years, we’ve seen the Bush administration use the power of government to favor big business and the wealthy.  He cut taxes and then embroiled us in an expensive war.  He promoted the New Feudalism, also known as the Ownership Society, where one is what one owns.  Under his watch, hundreds of thousands of Americans signed up  for mortgages they couldn’t afford, as a path to home ownership, and then found themselves homeless when their payments ratcheted up, and their income didn’t.

And who wins, ultimately, when hundreds of thousands of Americans go bankrupt?  The people who have assets to begin with, who stay calm, and  can acquire the foreclosed properties cheap.  The rich get richer….

On the other hand, when I was an impressionable teenager in the 1970s, I saw how the opposite premise, that government should use its power to help the people, could backfire.  My parents had steady jobs, so there was never a question of not having a roof overhead or food on the table.  But we had both inflation and unemployment, something classical economics said wasn’t supposed to happen.

In the early 1970s, we had the energy crisis when the Arabs refused to sell us oil. The Federal government has spent billions since then to try to encourage alternate sources of energy.  And while there has been progress, we’re still addicted to oil, and moaned this spring when the price of gasoline shot up.  So I have to wonder what would change to make the next infusion of Federal billions actually accomplish something.

For my part, I’d like to see a government that doesn’t use its power to particularly help anyone.  But it’s far more compelling campaigning to suggest what the government can or should do than what it can’t or shouldn’t.  So we’re stuck with the candidates as they stand.

*          *          *

I was impressed with the speech made by Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska and the Republican candidate for Vice-President,  at the convention last week.  She’s a good orator, and if her cover story is to believed, a good leader and administrator.  She’s also suffered the slings and arrows of life to a greater extent than your average politician.  All in all, it’s a compelling package, and more relevant than the average Vice Presidential candidate because her running mate, John McCain, will be the oldest person to become President if he is elected.

To some degree, I resented the commentary in the press about her lack of experience, and whether or not she had been properly vetted before her selection.  When I’ve had to hire someone, and have chosen experience over energy and a positive attitude given two otherwise similar candidates, I’ve generally been disappointed.  And I can’t get too terribly upset over Palin’s pregnant teenage daughter when I consider that Palin herself got married in her early 20s.  Some people get married earlier in life than others.

But as I contemplated the Obama buttons at the Labor Day parade, it came to me.  I’m sure that, in fact, Palin was very thoroughly vetted.  Her positions on issues, which didn’t really come out in the convention speech, are very far to the right.  She plays to the Republican base, more so than McCain.

She’s portrayed as a ‘reformer.’  Let’s grant that premise for a moment and consider: of everything that was and is wrong with the Bush administration, it never was in need of ‘reform.’  Our Fearless Leader made his decisions because he believed they were right, and not because someone paid him to.  Yes, all of his friends are in Big Oil, and he aspired to be a Big Oil man himself, but we knew that from the beginning, and voted for him anyway.

Sarah Palin is not a pit bull with lipstick: she’s Dubya with lipstick.

Losers, Sore and Otherwise

At the political conventions this year, Tuesday night seems to be the night for the loser to extol the winner.  A week ago, at the Democratic convention, Hillary Clinton threw her ‘support’ behind Barack Obama, even though she was unable to identify anything good about him beyond his not being a Republican, and her more memorable lines were about herself (‘the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit’).

Moreover, the whole convention last week was suffused with the funk of how Hillary should have properly won, but got upstaged by Obama, the upstart.

Last night, at the Republican convention, Fred Thompson  talked about John McCain, and it was a refreshing contrast.  Perhaps it was because Thompson was never a serious candidate, but he was able to actually identify good things about McCain, as well as noting that he’s not a Democrat.

Watching the Republican convention left me with the feeling that McCain was an honorable man who would make a fine President, something the Democrats failed to do at that point with Obama.

For my part, I’m still on the fence, and I have misgivings about both of the major candidates.  But it’s instructive that McCain seems to be held in higher esteem among the Republicans than Obama is among the Democrats.

Futzing with the Wayback Machine

I like to buy MP3 files from Amazon.  I grew up buying music at record stores, and I resist the idea of paying $15 a month to listen to ‘my music.’  But sometimes a song will cross my mind, and it’s cool to be able to look it up and, more often than not, download a copy on the spot.

The other day, the Billy Joel song ‘All for Leyna’ crossed my mind.  The song came out when I was coming to the sad realization that my high-school sweetheart was not going to be the love of my life.  The lyrics resonated with my situation at the time, the imagery at the beginning was clever (‘She / stood on the tracks / waving her arms / leading me to that third rail / shock….’) and ‘Leyna’ was close enough to my sweetheart’s name for, well, rock and roll.

Listening to it now, the pain is gone.  My wife brings me peace and happiness, and my ‘Leyna,’ such as our ‘relationship’ ever was back then, is long, long gone.  I downloaded the song, listened to it for a few times, and moved on to other things.

My wife wants to travel to Greece this fall.  I considered the matter with some trepidation: ‘Leyna’ is Greek, and I went to some considerable effort back then to learn the language.  But now my wife wants to learn some Greek in preparation for the trip: uh-oh.  While in the city the other day, we bought a guidebook and an elementary Greek text.

To my pleasant surprise, that didn’t bother me either.  Most of my recollection of the vocabulary is gone, but I think my sense of pronunciation is still there.  I suspect that I’ll probably have a bigger reaction if I should ever have to write Z80 assembly code, yet another language that I learned at that time.

Another Hurricane

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing very irregularly, and blaming it on my flaky Internet connection.  It was true: if I felt like writing, I’d look at the lights on the cable modem, and if the connection was down, I’d simply give up.  But late last week, I changed out the cable modem, so now I have no excuse.

Friday was the calm after the storm at work, having gotten a proposal out the door the night before, so I went home early and watched the tube.  The History Channel was showing a series of documentaries about New Orleans and its flood control system on the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

It was perhaps ironic that they were showing us about the levees as Hurricane Gustav is now churning through the Gulf of Mexico and, like Katrina three years ago, is taking aim at New Orleans.  At least this time, the city seems to be taking it seriously, with plans underway for a massive evacuation.

Berkshires

I’ve been incommunicado this week on vacation in the Berkshires, in western Massachusetts.  My wife introduced me to Tanglewood in 2000, before we got married, and we’ve gone there every summer since then, except for last year.  It’s a peaceful place, with rolling hills, interesting museums, and pleasant driving.

We stayed at Vacation Village in the Berkshires.  It’s a development of low-rise apartments in the mountains.  The place was described as having a ‘mountain view,’ but only by technicality: it looked out on the driveway and the buildings on the other side of the street.  It was neat and clean, but the place is apparently run by MBAs: you’re charged $20 to have the maid fix up your room, $50 if you leave a mess, and $150 if you stay beyond the 10:00 am check-out time.  Evidently, the concept of actual hospitality seems to elude them.

There was wireless Internet access in the lobby, but when I tried to sign on to harderworld.com to write a post, it didn’t work.  So I gave up: after all, I’m on vacation.

Knight of Darkness

Last week, as a birthday present, my son took me to see the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight. He thought it a motion picture masterpiece, and has razzed me on occasion for not going to see action movies anymore.

So we took an afternoon off from work to see it in Imax. My son was overawed by the Imax presentation, but for me, it was just a movie on a really big screen.

In terms of execution, it was, indeed, a cinematic masterpiece. It was photographed beautifully, was rich in detail, with excellent performances. Heath Ledger, in particular, was chilling as the Joker, perhaps too chilling.

But, in brief, I just didn’t like it. Gotham City is a tired, corrupt place, where all the trappings of civilization are still there, but the underlying premise of civilization–that others have integrity and can be trusted, at least enough to maintain civil order and enable commerce and the exchange of information–has rotted away. There are what appear to be flaming non sequiturs where events simply don’t make sense, until you realize that someone was probably bribed.

And the Joker is a vicious madman. There are some things that I simply don’t understand, and the modern fascination with psychosis as a subject for motion pictures is one of them.  Part of me wonders if Heath Ledger took the character too seriously, to the point where he became the Joker, went mad, and killed himself. Oops: I’m not supposed to say that, for we know that Heath Ledger died from an accidental overdose, having taken five different kinds of pain killers at the same time.

I don’t like movies whose main characters are criminals, unless they commit some extraordinarily clever crime, and I don’t like movies with vicious madmen. And now I wonder if our fascination with such characters has led to the death of a fine young actor.

Flaky Networking

The Internet connection at home recovered a bit in early August, and then got flaky again, being down far more often than it is up.  My wife and son keep odd hours and use the connection when it’s working; I have a cellular modem that I use for business, and avoid idle Web surfing.  It’s a bad habit; almost as bad as watching the tube.

All of our computers are networked, with a wireless network and a shared printer in the living room.  Last night, the Internet connection was down, but I needed to print something.  But when I tried to connect to the network in order to print. the Wi-Fi card in my laptop wouldn’t work.  Not only would it not connect with my home network, I couldn’t see any of the wireless networks in the neighboring apartments.  Indeed, it was as if the wireless card wasn’t even there.

This is not good news: I’m going on vacation this week, out of reliable cell phone range, and need working Wi-Fi.  I tried taking the card out of the computer and reseating it: no dice.

Eventually I gave up and hooked up my computer with the cable that is still under my desk from before I had Wi-Fi, but I was in a really bad mood: I don’t like to fail.

This morning, having contemplated the situation overnight, I was suspecting that Windows had changed something during the last update, yesterday morning.  But there’s a way out: every time it does an update, it records the previous state of the system so that one can roll back the change.  Great!

Except that when I tried it, the rollback failed due to some ‘unspecified error.’  (Yes, the error message actually said ‘unspecified error.’)  Forgive me, but what is the point of saving a restore point if you can’t actually restore to it?

I headed in to work today (my wife is a choirmistress, and she works Sundays), and tried booting my laptop off a Linux CD.  Linux asserted that there was no wireless networking card on the machine, so I sighed, accepted that it was really thoroughly dead, and decided to buy a new one at lunchtime.  I loaded the drivers and it seemed to work, but I don’t use Wi-Fi in the office.

This evening, I prepared to give my new Wi-Fi card an operational test, but found that the internal Wi-Fi was back up.  Indeed, that’s how I was able to prepare this post.

I guess anything can be brought back to service if you swear at it enough.

Does anyone want a new Wi-Fi card?  I’m selling one, really cheap….

Am I allowed to want? and other soggy sagas

For the last couple of weeks, my flaky Internet connection at home got even flakier, to the point where it was up for only a couple of hours in the middle of the night. “Call the cable company and complain,” my wife told me.

But then I’d have to dig up their phone number, and the account number, and wait for twenty minutes on hold, and then they’d tell me, “We’ll get right on it,” and then I’d probably have to call again. It was easier to simply live without it. Pointless Web surfing is a bad habit, except that I can’t update my blog.

A couple of days ago, the connection came back up: I guess someone else complained.

* * *

All of that is rather pointless, except as introduction to my current funk. If my mother saw me writing this post, and read the title, she’d knock me upside the head. “Stop your self-pity,” she’d tell me.

*     *     *

Yesterday afternoon, my wife called me at the office: there’s was a concert in Prospect Park, and she wanted to see it. As I read the description, it was a performance of music from the movie Powaqqatsi. I was mildly interested, so I agreed.

We got to the Prospect Park Bandshell, paid our admission, and I saw that we had a choice: we could sit on seats in the bandshell, or spread out beyond it, on the lawn. This is good, I thought: I had brought a ground cloth, and we could stretch out and relax, since the performance was not due to start for another hour.

Instead, my wife pulled me toward the bandshell, to the second row behind the seats that had been cordoned off for VIPs. I really didn’t want to sit in an uncomfortable metal folding chair for four hours, with no legroom, hemmed in by crowds so that it would be a major production to go to the can, but I’m the good husband, so I went.

Worse, I hadn’t brought my computer, or anything to read. But my wife had brought a play that she was studying for one of her classes, so at least I could read over her shoulder.

Powaqqatsi is one of a series of three movies about life and (although those responsible will jump up and down and swear otherwise) how modern civilization is screwing it up.  There is no plot, no dialogue, not even any visual references to specific places: we’re somewhere in Asia or Africa or wherever, but we can’t quite tell where. The visuals are a series of mostly dreary images from these exotic locales, of people doing the little things they do to keep their world going. These are interspersed with images of our modern world, chosen and edited for ugliness.

This is accompanied by grinding music that is somewhat related to the visuals, occasionally echoing the sounds that would have been present during filming, but mostly just grinding. Sometimes, the music evokes a feeling of triumph, but there is no triumph on the screen.  In fairness, the live music was the best part of the production.  It would have been stirring if it had been presented by itself, or with better visuals.

Perhaps the real art of Powaqqatsi is that it causes a group of people to assemble themselves, experience it, and feel edified.

*     *     *

And while I was writing the previous section, the Internet connection at my house went down.  About an hour later, it’s up again.  I had better finish this quickly….

I went to Powaqqatsi by default: it was my wife’s idea.  But if it was my decision, what would I have done?  I probably would have wanted to watch the tube for a bit, and then go to sleep.

But  what do I really want?  If all doors had stood open, and I weren’t tired after a long work week, what would I want to do?

Alas, I really don’t know….

And the point of this is…

New York Waterfalls

While on our evening walk, my wife and I came across the temporary waterfall that was set up on the Brooklyn shore, near the Promenade. Last week, the scaffolding was set up, but the waterfall was not in operation. Now it’s turned on, and it looks like… scaffolding with water coming out the top of it.

There is such a thing as good public art. A few years ago, The Gates, a series of wooden archways with orange curtains, was installed in Central Park. That was fun: the orange contrasted with the white and gray of the park in winter, and each archway was a new revelation, inviting one to see the park again for the very first time.

But this waterfall thing isn’t it. Perhaps the waterfall nestled under the Brooklyn Bridge looks cooler, but the ones that I could see, near the Promenade and on Governor’s Island, were dwarfed by the city around them.   (There is a fourth waterfall further north, on the Manhattan side.)  The waterfalls are not colorful, and not particularly eye-catching. They contribute only noise and humidity, two things that are already here in Brooklyn in more than sufficient quantities.

Who thought this was a good idea?

The Winners Build the Monuments

An editorial piece in today’s Daily News, decrying the slow progress on the World Trade Center memorial, cited the remarks of former New York City Mayor Giuliani on leaving office in 2001, shortly after the events of 11 September:

You know, long after we’re all gone, it’s the sacrifice of our patriots and their heroism that is going to be what this place is remembered for. It could be a place that is remembered 100 and 1,000 years from now, like the great battlefields of Europe and of the United States. And we really have to be able to do with it what they did with Normandy or Valley Forge or Bunker Hill or Gettysburg. We have to be able to create something here that enshrines this forever and that allows people to build on it and grow from it.

At the time, nobody called him on it: we were still overwrought with what had happened, and Mayor Giuliani had done a wonderful job in keeping the city together after 11 September.  But now that we have some distance from the event, we might consider:

  • Normandy:  The Allies landed in Normandy as a first step to retaking France and western Europe from the Nazis.  They secured a beachhead and advanced from there to end the war in Europe in less than a year.
  • Valley Forge:  It wasn’t really a ‘battlefield;’ it was where the Continental Army encamped for the winter of 1777-1778, during which they became stronger and ultimately succeeded in driving the British out of what is now the United States.
  • Bunker Hill:  The Continental Army actually lost the battle of Bunker Hill, an effort to secure the Hill as an artillery site.  But the British took heavy losses, and ultimately lost the war.
  • Gettysburg: We remember Gettysburg for President Lincoln’s famous speech (‘Four score and seven years ago…’).  But Lincoln would not have given the speech there if the Union forces had lost the battle of Gettysburg, and we would not remember it if the Union had lost the Civil War.

The winners write the history books, and the winners build the monuments.  When there is a monument to defeat, even when built by the winners afterward, it tends to be small, understated, conciliatory.  (There is, for example, a monument at Dunkirk, not far from Normandy, where the British and French were driven out by the Nazis some years before.)

In other words, there seems something profoundly wrong with building a big elaborate monument to getting one’s own ass whupped.  On the other hand, this won’t be the first time: witness the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

Have pain and suffering become the psychic coin of the realm, as triumph and exultation were in the not-so-distant past?

And what does that mean for the future?

Heroes of Independence Day

Last night, my wife and I watched Independence Day, the 1996 movie with Will Smith, in which hostile aliens from outer space start destroying major cities.  It was one of my son’s favorite movies when it came out years ago, and was a huge commercial success.  But my wife hadn’t seen it before.

She was impressed, and thought it was a very well-made movie.  As I watched it with her, I wondered why it seemed so wonderful.

“You don’t watch action movies anymore,” my son often says to me, and it’s true.  And it’s not just that I’m busier now, or that I more often see movies with my wife than with my son: the latest crop of action movies no longer appeals.  I couldn’t care less about the exploits of Spider-Man, Ironman, the Fantastic Four, Hellboy, or any of the comic-book superheroes prowling the screens today.

And when I watched Independence Day last night, I understood why.  Independence Day told the story of ordinary mortals who were pressed to become heroes.  And so it was with the James Bond movies, The Peacemaker, Armageddon, and the other action movies that my son and I enjoyed in the 1990s.  While sometimes it was the hero’s job to be a hero, in every case the hero was still an ordinary person.

I am starved for the sight of such a hero in the movies or television: an otherwise ordinary person who rises to a challenge, faces it with grace and skill, and prevails.

Last week, I went to see Get Smart with my son.  Maxwell Smart was never a hero: he was an amiable buffoon who happened to solve the problems at hand.  And while the movie tends more to action than the 1960s TV series did, it’s still more of a comedy.  So while it was fun, it didn’t hit my hero spot.

And then there’s Hancock, this year’s Will Smith movie.  Hancock is an otherwise ordinary guy with superhero skills.  But since he apparently doesn’t know what to do with them, he begins the movie as a drunken bum.

It was a truism where I used to work (a very large organization) that there are ‘no more heroes.’  In some quarters ‘heroics’ is almost a dirty word: it’s the way unsophisticated, immature organizations accomplish things.  The Disney animated movie The Incredibles took a tongue-in-cheek view, positing a world in which the superheroes were forced to retire under the threat of lawsuits.

Over 400 years ago, Sheakespeare wrote in ‘King Henry v’:

In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;

In other words, the hero is there inside of us, waiting to be unleashed should the circumstances present themselves.

But if we’re told all our lives that there are no such things as heroes, what will we do?

Anatomy of a Hissy Fit

Last Sunday, Wesley Clark, former general and Democratic Presidential candidate, remarked on Face the Nation that “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be President.” The remark related to the Republican candidate, John McCain.

It was, perhaps, a rude thing to say, but not entirely out of place.  Much of McCain’s appeal is based on his having been shot down over Vietnam and serving several years as a prisoner of war.  And as for a qualification to be President, I’d rather have a guy who flew a fighter plane and didn’t get shot down.

But the McCain camp worked themselves into a lather over the remark, suggesting that Clark was asserting that McCain’s military service did not qualify him to be President.

Well, it doesn’t!  The last President to have actually served in the military (as opposed to the National Guard) was the elder George Bush.  And there are thousands of ex-fighter pilots, and probably hundreds of ex-fighter pilots who were also prisoners of war: are all of them entitled to be President?

It was also suggested that Clark apologize for his remarks.  He didn’t, but Barack Obama had to address the issue, indicating regret that Clark had taken the campaign off-message.  Politics makes cowards of us all.

The result of this is that we got through another week chasing our tails because someone said something refreshingly honest, instead of the standard manufactured blather, or, worse yet, actually addressing the issues.

Facing Reality II-WTC Memorial

And then, there’s the planned WTC Memorial.

When the Port Authority reported that the projects on the World Trade Center site were seriously delayed, the head of the foundation building the memorial insisted that it was ‘essential’ that the memorial be completed by 2011. Apparently wishful thinking will make it so. Or is it that he fears that the rest of us will have moved on with our lives?

Of course there should be a memorial to the original Twin Towers and the people who lost their lives on 11 September. But does that mean that a dozen acres of prime Manhattan real estate should be given over in perpetuity for moaning and wailing?

After the events of 11 September, we were all in a state of shock. Some people suggested that the site be left alone. There were letters to the newspaper editors, full of resentment that the subway and PATH people set to work in the depths of the Pit to restore their respective facilities: how dare they take my loved one’s resting place for a train station!

Eventually, in this overheated atmosphere, a plan emerged, with two reflecting pools covering the footprints of the original Towers. It effectively precludes the use of the site for other purposes. While there is green space and (I’d like to imagine) places to sit, I can imagine that there will be howls of protests about letting hod dog vendors into the area, lest it spoil the somber mood of the place.

The foundation responsible for the memorial (you can read more about it at http://www.national911memorial.org/) reported in March that they had met their $350 million fundraising goal for the project. That sounds like a lot of popular support until you read a little further: about 80% of the total comes from donations of $5 million or more, and over 95% comes from donations of $1 million or more. Only a relative handful came from ordinary people who sent in a few dollars for the cause.

So I guess it will get built, eventually. But I’d rather have a useful park, where one might go for a twilight concert or something, than a monument to our pain and suffering.

Facing Reality

Yesterday’s newspapers reported what we, as New Yorkers, had already understood for a long time: that the plans for the new structures that were supposed to replace the World Trade Center were irretrievably screwed up, and that, without several months of further analysis, it would not even be possible to make a reasonable projection about when they might be finished.

We used to be a city, and a nation, of big plans and big achievements: the first New York subway was designed and built from scratch in eight years; we won World War II; we went to the moon in a decade; the original World Trade Center towers were built in eight years.

After the attacks of 11 September, we rebuilt the necessary pieces of infrastructure pretty quickly: the power grid got fixed in a few months; the IRT subway that ran through the site was reopened in a year (it would have been sooner, but Governor Pataki wanted to preside at the reopening ceremony); the PATH terminal and the tunnels to New Jersey were back in a little over two years.

And then, when it came to properly rebuilding the site, the wheels fell off.

What happened?

There are lots of things that one could point to, but an obvious one is the difference between leadership and management. The Port Authority in the 1960s, had a vision of how they would improve the city by building two really tall buildings. They held on to their vision, despite some measure of public opposition, and the original Twin Towers were built.

Today, the management of the project is fractured. The Port Authority owns the site, but is subject to direction from the state, the city, Larry Silverstein (to whom the World Trade Center site was leased shortly before 11 September), and a cast of characters. Worse, nobody seems to see anything wrong with this.

A project like this, with many competing interests, needs leader whom everyone trusts, who has a reasonable understanding of the interests involved, who can fairly decide when someone won’t get exactly what they want, and who has the authority to make his decisions stick,

But that isn’t the modern management style. There are no heroes; there are no ‘lone wolves.’ Instead there is management by consensus, a thoughtful balancing of the interests of the ‘stakeholders.’

The problem is that leads to decisions that are ‘safe,’ but really crappy:

  • The proper way to show that we refuse to give in to the terrorists is to build something as awesome as the original Twin Towers. Replicating the Towers would be a good idea, but isn’t the only alternative. But as much as the site and the New York psyche cries for iconic skyscrapers, that would be too dangerous. So instead we have a parade of boxes.
  • The actual height of the Freedom Tower (minus the spire) is actually only slightly shorter than the original Twin Towers. So it really isn’t that much less dangerous, if we’re worried about an event similar to 11 September.
  • And who gave us the name ‘Freedom Tower’? The site is still called the World Trade Center, and the other buildings will carry World Trade Center addresses. Are we really celebrating freedom in a building that had to be redesigned so as to make it more resistant to truck bombs?
  • The Port Authority, afraid that commercial tenants might not want to occupy an iconic skyscraper, has leased about 30% of the space in the Freedom Tower to other government agencies. While this guarantees a revenue stream to the Port Authority, it’s also the kiss of death for A-list tenants who would pay top dollar to occupy a building where they wouldn’t have to rub elbows with civil servants.

More tomorrow, or whenever I have some time to write….

Peaceful Saturday

I haven’t been writing for the last few days because my Internet connection at home has been flaky. (Even though I’m in business for myself, and don’t bill for unproductive time, I still can’t quite bring myself to write posts at the office.) I’ve lived at the same place since 2003 and had Internet access through the local Cable TV company. Up until this past week, we’ve had maybe one or two brief interruptions per year. But now it’s really hit or miss.

I was about to give up this morning when I decided to give the setup one last kick in the pants. I disconnected and reconnected power to my cable modem, and everything started working again. I can’t say how long it will last, though.

* * *

“I have a terrific idea,” my wife said on Friday night.

“Should I be terrified?” I asked.

“I want to go to a Polish restaurant for lunch tomorrow.”

Technically, I’m a Polish-American, but I have no desire to learn Polish, or eat Polish food, or go to Poland. I wasn’t terrified, but I was a little ticked off: I wanted to have my Saturday lunch at Bar Tabac, a French bistro place on Smith Street.

“I don’t know any Polish places.”

“Do some research.”

The Internet was working briefly yesterday morning, and I found a couple of plausible spots. I had no reason to be terrified: they generally served what one would recognize as ‘American’ food, as well as some distinctly Polish items. So we went to Christine’s in Greenpoint (the Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn) and had a good lunch.

After lunch, we went to the Union Square Greenmarket and bought some vegetables. There is one place that sells vast piles of bright magenta radishes: fresh and juicy and spicier than the tepid red balls one finds in plastic bags in the supermarket. They disappear in November or so; we’re glad to see them back.

We went to Madison Square Park and sat there for a while, contemplating the line that was waiting to buy hamburgers at the Shake Shack. I’m sure they make good burgers, but I couldn’t bring myself to wait a half-hour for one. Is part of the charm of part of the Shack Shack burger the ability to moan about waiting on line for it?

And then we went home and took a nap. I run around like a maniac the rest of the week; I need a day off.

Doing It in 15 Minutes

It’s 7:30 am.

When I first kept a blog, years ago, I had to do everything myself: I had to open up an HTML editor, write my post, then fix up the calendar page.  If it was the first post of the month, I would have to compose another calendar page and do some further housekeeping.  Then I would FTP the new files to the site and check that I hadn’t munged anything.  So there was anywhere between five and fifteen minutes of housekeeping on top of actually writing the post.

My life was calmer then, and most days I had about an hour where I could sit down, write expansively about something, and then post it.  Today, things are busier, but I’m still in the mindset about the wonderful thing that I want to write if I could sit down for an hour.  But there aren’t any hours like that, where I have time on my hands and some good energy for writing.

Fortunately, things have advanced since I was composing pages the hard way.  I don’t have to do any housekeeping: I just write, hit ‘Publish,’ and I’m done.  I still read the page after it’s posted, partly from force of habit, but even that isn’t necessary: the blogging software does not mung my text.

But I’m still in the mode of the magnificent opus that I want to write.  Unfortunately, since I don’t have the time and energy, I end up writing nothing.  I have to learn that there really is such a thing as the quick post, accomplished in less than 15 minutes, like today’s post.

It’s 7:42 am.  So I still have time to hit ‘Publish’ and check my work.

Done!

Painting the Corridors/Blackout

Last Thursday, they started painting the corridors in the apartment.  While the building where I live is generally kept in good order, the corridors could use a paint job: they haven’t been painted since we moved here in 2003.

Aesthetically, I wish they hadn’t: the old paint was a light yellow, which was pleasantly warm originally, when lit by incandescent lights, and still decent when the lights were replaced with fluorescent bulbs.  The new paint job is a blue-gray color, dismal and cold.  Did they choose such a grim color so that we’d all know they had been painted?

And then, in the lobby, someone posted a notice that the apartment doors were being painted with (gasp!) oil-based paint.  “Oil-based paint is a paint whose primary component is oil,” the notice reminds us.  (As opposed to, say, peanut butter?)

“Do you want your children  to breathe these fumes?”

At this point, my son is old enough that I can no longer control what he breathes.  But if he were younger, while I wouldn’t take him to a paint factory, I can’t get upset about the paint on the apartment doors.

When I was a kid, oil-based paint was common enough as a wall paint, and the smell of a freshly-painted apartment was part of its charm.  But I have to wonder if the people who are fear for their children from freshly-painted doors ever change their shower curtains: the funk from a new plastic curtain can make a bathroom uninhabitable for a week.

*          *          *

On my way home this afternoon, the trains were screwed up: a blackout in Brooklyn.  I feared for the worst as I took an alternate route home.  But the lights were still on when I got home.  Whew: I had loaded up on groceries this morning.

I have to wonder, though: we never had to worry about blackouts in New York City until a few years ago.  Electricity in the city was expensive, but reliable.  Now, some part of the city loses power every year: a couple of years ago, part of Queens was in the dark for over a week.

Maybe if electricity got cheaper, one might consider it a fair trade.  But it’s still expensive, and Con Ed has asked for yet another rate increase.

Sex and the City

My wife and I went to see the new Sex and the City movie today.  All the reviews of it that I’ve seen to date considered it either wonderful or horrible.  My sense of it was somewhere in between: it isn’t a cinematic masterpiece, but it’s a good light entertainment.  It would have been better if it were cut about twenty minutes shorter, but I can’t complain too hard: today was the first seriously hot day of the year in New York City, and it was good to sit in an air-conditioned movie theater.

My wife introduced me to the TV series when we got married.  If I had watched it when I was a lonely single guy, I would have hated it: how could I find a decent companion when women were like that?  But ensconced in a happy marriage, the women of Sex in the City seemed unreal: they lived under different laws of relationship physics than the rest of us, and their situations were entertaining when it happened to them, but in the real world, we wouldn’t do things like that.

The TV series got formulaic after a while, and came to a reasonable end in 2004.  The movie represents a continuation of the story a few years hence, and a chance to answer the one thing that I never understood:

What does Carrie see in Mr. Big?

Throughout the entire television series, Carrie Bradshaw, the lead character, is irretrievably attracted to ‘Mr. Big,’ but I could never understand why: Big is a self-absorbed asshole with a fear of commitment.

In the movie, Carrie and Big have been living together, and decide to get married so coldly that the theater had to shut off the air conditioning to prevent frostbite among the audience.  You might have thought that a few years with his true love would have softened Big, but no: he’s still a self-absorbed asshole.  If he were as unsure of himself in his working life as in his relationship with Carrie, he’d be a total loser instead of a bigshot construction executive.  Later, he backs out of his own wedding, and we’re not surprised.

In the end, it’s all resolved, and yes, Carrie and Big get married.  (I don’t think I’ve given away much: in this case, the journey is more interesting than the destination.)  But the groundwork is there for a sequel, say 3-4 years hence, when they get divorced….

Andromeda Sprained

This weekend, I watched the remake of The Andromeda Strain on A&E. When the original came out in the early 1970s, I thought it was way cool: crack scientists in a secret underground lab, trying to understand an actual (if microbial) creature from outer space. I was curious how it got transformed for our time.

First, the story has been retuned to our current mania for death and destruction. In the original, Andromeda did almost all of its killing before the picture started: we drive around the town of Piedmont and wonder what how everyone died at once. But in the new version, Andromeda is the Energizer Bunny of microbes: we see it kill again and again. The odd thing is that its victims only die after they have passed it to someone else.  Later, it kills plants, as well. We’re supposed to believe that Andromeda is intelligent, that it has been sent across billions of miles over at least some number of years with hostile intent. Mostly, I think the scriptwriters are just lazy.

In the original, the military may have had their sinister intentions, but they were secondary to the scientists. Now we see them blundering about throughout the picture (and getting killed): they’re not only evil, they’re stupid as well. The unspoken message: they will not protect you. Meanwhile, the handsome young journalist slips through their fingers. We’re rooting for him, of course, but it’s yet another dimension of military ineptitude.

Another change was to adapt the story to our mania for instant communication. Originally, the scientists were holed up in their top-secret lab, and part of the story turned on a lapse of communication due to a trivial failure of a Teletype machine. In the current version, the scientists are on the phone half the time, even talking to our handsome journalist. What part of ‘top-secret laboratory’ do these people not understand?

Finally, in the original, the key to disarm the atomic self-destruct device is turned over to one of the scientists because he’s a single male, and the Odd Man Hypothesis suggests that single males are most likely to make the correct decision in such matters. We never knew anything about his personal life beyond that, and didn’t think anything further about it. In the current version, it’s impressed on us that the Odd Man is gay.

When I was eleven, the original Andromeda Strain was a shining illustration in the power of reason and logic, although I didn’t put it in those terms back then: it was just really cool. Even though the scientists in the new version do manage to save the world, it’s a pale imitation of the original.

Cutting the delegates in half…/Voting for Obama?

Yesterday evening, the Democratic rules committee  reached a decision about Florida and Michigan.  The delegations would be seated with half-votes instead of full votes, and for Michigan, some of the delegates (including a handful that would otherwise have gone to Hillary Clinton) were allocated to Barack Obama, who did not appear on the ballot.

As a result, Clinton nets a few dozen delegates, but not enough to make a meaningful dent in Obama’s lead.  When the last primaries end on Tuesday, Obama will be in striking distance to the nomination, but will probably not have bagged it.  But he’ll be the nominee, barring something really extraordinary.

*          *          *

I’m a registered Democrat, and I consider the Bush victory in 2000 the closest thing to a coup d’etat that our country has ever experienced.  I really don’t want to vote Republican this year, but if Clinton were to win the nomination, I’d have to vote for John McCain.

On the other hand, There’s a lot that I like about Obama, most of it stuff that seems to tick everyone else off.  I like that he listens to people who don’t believe that the US is the most wonderful country on the planet, and that he’s an intellectual with a conceptual view of the world.

Part of me likes that Obama is willing to open discussions with our enemies, but he underplays the difficulty of actually doing that: he’ll be swimming with the sharks, and if he’s not careful, he’ll get his leg bitten off.

But when it comes to Iraq, he’s lost me.  Both Obama and Clinton believe that our next task with Iraq is getting out.  While our adventures in Iraq were ill-advised at best, the next President must play the hand that he is dealt.  McCain was refreshingly honest when he remarked, a few months ago, that we might be in Iraq for 100 years.  In other words: Brother, you bought yourself a protectorate.

The Iraqi government is making progress in organizing itself and preparing to function as an independent state.  But it’s a difficult job and cannot be accomplished on a timetable driven by American politics.  It’s not, as some (including Obama) imagine, that the Iraqis are imply lazy, and if we simply hold their feet to the fire, they’ll buckle down and solve all their problems.

If we move out in 2009, we endanger Iraq’s progress, and in turn we risk destabilizing the region.   None of the advocates for withdrawal has come up with a good answer to that.

Obama has an answer, but it’s not a good one: he plans to talk to Iran and hope they’ll make nice.  It’s one thing to talk to our enemies, but it’s quite another to expect that they will act in our interest–instead of theirs–as an immediate result of such talking.

I’d like to vote for Obama, but in some respects he makes it really, really difficult.

Democrats’ Disaster

Today, the Democratic rules committee meets to decide what to do about Florida and Michigan, which were disqualified by the party because they held their primary elections too early.  In 2004, John Kerry was the clear winner after only a few weeks of campaigning, and many people across the country felt disenfranchised because they were voting only after the winner had been determined.So this year, many states fell over themselves trying to hold early primaries. New York moved its primary to early March, and Florida and Michigan moved theirs to January, in violation of Party rules. The decision had been made in 2007, and the consequences of that decision were clear: their delegates would be barred from the convention.

In response, the candidates refrained from campaigning in the two states, and Obama took his name off the Michigan ballot. Clinton won both states, through name recognition and the fact that she had yet to endure the slings and arrows of the campaign season.

And now that Clinton is behind, she’s yelling ‘disenfranchisement’ and demanding that the delegates from these states be seated with their full voting rights. (This is why, despite the fact that I voted for Clinton in March, I’m against her now: she has no integrity.) The voters of Florida and Michigan were disenfranchised by their state Party leaders, who thought they could break the rules and then get absolution through moaning and wailing.

As far as the rules committee’s decision, sadly, I don’t think it really matters. It won’t matter how the issue of Florida and Michigan are resolved, and it won’t matter who wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for President: the party will lose anyway. Maybe their candidate will be elected, but I doubt it.

The two candidates are perceived as members of a ‘disadvantaged’ groups: Hillary Clinton is a woman, and Barack Obama is black. If you favor Clinton over Obama, you’re a racist, and if you favor Obama over Clinton, you’re a sexist. Whoever wins will alienate the other half of the party’s base, and no party can expect to win that way without broad appeal beyond the base, which neither candidate has.

On the metrics, it’s hard to assess who would be the better candidate. Obama got more votes in primaries and caucuses, but in polls matching them against John McCain, the Republican candidate, Clinton does a few points better.

It’s been suggested that Clinton and Obama could both be on the ticket if the winner picked the loser to be the Vice President. Alas, I don’t think that will work either. Clinton as Vice President will be the Democrats’ Dick Cheney: the dark force that is the real power. Obama-Clinton mirrors Bush-Cheney too strongly. And if Clinton, through some degree of political legerdemain, became the Presidential candidate, many people would believe that she stole the nomination from Obama. In either case, the ticket would get lukewarm support, at best, across the Democratic spectrum, and that will not suffice to win.

Bingeing…

The Memorial Day weekend was somewhat of a lost weekend for me. No, I didn’t get drunk: instead I indulged in my secret vice, reality television.

I have been bitterly disappointed by the state of televised entertainment. I would love to watch the tube and get a good laugh, but situation comedies are populated by clueless buffoons who prattle on about pointless idiocies. The last network TV program that I made time in my schedule for was The Apprentice. At first, it was an object lesson in how to succeed in business: the characters were driven to do their best because they wanted–really wanted–to work for Donald Trump. But then it came to be about the personalities, then the alleged deprivations of sleeping in a tent. In its final incarnation before they pulled the plug, the original strivers were replaced by indifferent celebrities who were playing for charity.

So I spent the last weekend watching The Deadliest Catch, the saga of Alaskan crab fishermen. No buffoons; no idiocies; just the drama, humor, and, yes, glory of good hard work. When I was a kid, the airwaves were full of stories of adventures and characters who were not dysfunctional.

Today, such characters are the province of science-fiction series, as well as Deadliest Catch and its kin: Ax Men, Ice Road Truckers, The Alaska Experiment, and America’s Port. Besides the drama of accomplishing something worthwhile, the reality shows include animations illustrating the details of fishing or logging or whatever.

Today is Wednesday, the night of my newest vice, ABC’s Wife Swap. Sometimes I go out on an evening walk with my wife and miss it, but I’ll watch it if I’m home. I want to rail at it as child abuse, but it’s strangely compelling. Perhaps it’s that the producers select two couples that are polar opposites: super slackers vs. anal-retentive achievers. With such extreme parents–of either stripe–exposing the children to something different can only be an improvement. OK, it’s formulaic, but it works.

But then, so is Deadliest Catch: launch the pots into the water, wait a bit, throw the hook, and then pause just before the contents of the pot come into view….

Back to politics and whatever tomorrow!

Saving Money? What’s That?

In Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s blog a few days ago, she wondered what happened to the habit of saving money. For a student of the world, and how it has become a more difficult place, it’s a more than fair question. The statistics are chilling: while we were able about 8% of our income in the 1980s, the figure today is less than 1%, and has even gone negative.

“Waste not, want not: my mother always said that.” Well, when I was growing up, my mother always said it. She started a savings account for me shortly after I was born; when I was older, she would tell me about growing up in the Depression. My parents saved and invested: they weren’t rich but they had a comfortable retirement. And my mother’s problem, when the end was near, was not that she was poor, but that there was nothing that she could spend her money on that would give her peace. (From time to time, when she really couldn’t take care of herself, she went to a nursing home, and hated every millisecond of it.)

For my part, when I was first making my way out in the world in 1983, saving money was not a problem for me. I deposited my paycheck in the bank, paid the rent and my bills, took $40 from the ATM at a clip, and watched my bank balance gently float skyward, even though I was barely earning $8/hour.

And then I got married (the first time) and faced the emergency of parenthood, and the wheels fell off. I’ll skip the really icky part, when I got divorced: you’re supposed to be broke when you split up.

Since then, I’ll be able to drop $50 or $100 in my savings account, but only occasionally. And then something will happen, and the money will come back out. For now, I have an excuse: I’m building my business, and my personal income is not up to where it was when I was in my last job.

But before I went into business for myself, saving was difficult, if not impossible. I think I know why, even though these sound like weak pretexts rather than good reasons:

  • Futility: Let’s say that you want to buy an apartment. Here in Brooklyn, they’re not cheap: let’s say $400,000, not to load the case. If you have to put 10% down, that’s $40,000, and if you can save $100/month, you’ll need about 30 years to accumulate it. If you can scrounge $400/month, it will still take a good few years. (Perhaps I was foolish not to take advantage of all the deals that were available a few years ago. But if I had, now I’d be bankrupt on top of everything else.)
  • Wanting to do something nice: When my wife wants something nice, I have a choice: I can be the Blue Meanie and say we can’t afford it, or I can whip out the plastic. And when it’s the end of the week, and I can relax for a bit, it’s nice to go out for dinner. OK: when you do the math, it’s a few thousand dollars a year. But would it really be worth it to be a tightwad?

But beyond that, saving isn’t cool in the popular culture. The news guy every night tells us that the economy depends on consumer spending: while I don’t take it too literally (no: it’s not my partiotic duty to spend!), it’s unfortunately true as a practical matter. And the Robert Kiyosaki ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ books suggest that the way to wealth is not through doing and saving: it’s through owning. (But how you you get the werewithal to buy something so that you can own it? I guess that’s beside the point.)

I could save money. I could brown bag it for lunch, and ditch some of the restaurant meals.

Why is that so hard?

Pleasant surprises

Last night, while playing with my new PDA, I listened to some of the music files came with the device. Some were inane, but one was compelling: ‘Perfect Weapon’ by Communique, from about early 2004. I’ve given up on listening to the radio and so rarely will popular music seep into my consciousness, so this was a pleasant surprise.

The lyrics are a little silly: “Our bodies keep sweating/We’ve found the perfect weapon.” (You mean that you shower that infrequently?) But it’s propulsive and cool, and that seems very rare these days.

* * *

125 years ago this coming Saturday, the Brooklyn Bridge was opened to traffic. The Brooklyn Borough President (an amiable guy who appears to have no actual political function) noted on the news tonight that the celebration would kick off early with fireworks tonight. My wife and I often walk from our house to the Brooklyn Heights promenade, a short distance from the bridge, so we decided to watch the show.

There weren’t that many people on the promenade when we arrived, but the fireworks show was nice. It was a little chilly in the evening, so my wife and I snuggled together as we watched. I tried to take some pictures to capture the moment, although I still haven’t caught the knack of capturing fireworks with a digital camera.

Brooklyn Bridge Fireworks 2008

The last major anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge was the 100th anniversary, in 1983. I remember the time: I had just finished engineering school, and I was working on the evening of the fireworks. I watched the show back then on a black-and-white TV at my workplace, an exercise in futility if there ever was one, and followed it up with black-and-white pictures in the newspaper the next day.

Twenty-five years hence, when the bridge is 150, I’d like to believe that I’ll still be around, with my wife. We’ll be, well, old, but such is life.

It’s a vaguely pleasant thought.

The world is changing…