Thursday, January 31, 2008


We recently watched Ken Loach'sThe Wind that Shakes the Barley , and it had many of the virtues and shortcomings that I remembered of Loach, didactic and heartfelt, this one beautiful and green. In it an IRA guy has to execute a guy from his crew for treason, shoot him in the head, and as the condemned boy converses with his executor his last words are "I'm scared Damian," and Damian replies "I'll protect you." And shoots him.

It's a very hard seen to watch, and there are others too. Gut wrenching.

And it brought me back to the question of difficulty in art. As time rolls on I'm less and less inclined towards it, more often picking the Will Ferrell or Ben Stiller vehicle. The certainty of my own death now being more apparent, there's more of a need to skirt it.

But it's worth challenging myself still, I think. This new wave of Rumanian films (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu et al.), is the clearest demonstration of it. There are places where life is still lived otherwise.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Off the rack, 1.25

So after losing my expensive glasses in the bottomless troth of humanity that is Penn Station, I headed out to an optician within my new vision insurance plan to reequip myself. When I got there, it was crowded and I had to fill out paperwork, and there was some guy in back looked like a Capo or something kicking back doing Sudoku or somesuch. When I got my paperwork done, it turned out he was the optometrist.

He took me in the examination room and asks me a few questions about my age, my vision, and says that he's going to examine me but he can tell me right then that I don't need a prescription and can buy reading glasses off the rack. Then, he examined me and told me I could buy off the rack, and that I didn't need a prescription.

"But the other optometrist (one of the guys at Lenscrafters at Market Fair) told me my eyes were different, and therefore I needed a prescription." And he's like "Tell me this. What's the difference between Plainsboro and West Windsor." Me: "A couple of miles?" Him: "No. They're the same thing, that's how different your eyes are. The other guy (that is, the guy at Lenscrafters at Market Fair) just wanted to sell you some glasses."

I felt just like Navin R. Johnson: "I see, it's a profit scheme!"

Monday, January 28, 2008

65 Roses

Thanks to our West Coast correspondent John Fox for filling me in on the upcoming Pressure Boys reunion at the Cradle to raise money for research for a cure to Cystic Fibrosis.

YouTube doesn't offer any video for the gang, so lets just capture the spirit of the era with a scene from the classic Holy Grail, known throughout as the scene of French Taunting.

I actually picked up a copy of the Grail from the local thrift store (along with my new Rockfordesque sports coat), and Mary and I watched an hour and found that it has held up down through the years, much more so than did its spawn, The Life of Brian.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The dipping point

The Times coverage of Heath Ledger's death brought to mind earlier instances of young idols killing themselves, begetting imitators, and being considered bellwethers (frankly, I hadn't thought of Ledger as a big deal, cute though he may have been). The writer pulls up Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther as a reference point where lots of young people had gone out and killed themselves after the book came out.

Back to Malcolm Gladwell and The Tipping Point, where the author drones on and on about suicide epidemics in Micronesia. Why didn't Gladwell have anything to say about the Werther suicides or other similar incidents (including the "Eseninschina" outbreak in Russia after Sergei Esenin killed himself in 1925, and which led Mayakovsky* to write a poem to pull young folks back from the brink of death[and before he capped himself on April 14, 1930] )? He should have at least remembered Werther. My point is, Gladwell's seeming polymathism is a little shallow. He shoulda had some of them New Yorker fact-checkers and fact-suggesters working with him.

*By the way, since Mayakovsky rears his head here again, lets return for a moment to the provenance of this blog, a short poem from 1913:

Eat your pineapples,
Chew your grouse,
Your days days are coming,
You bourgeois louse

I think that about says it all.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Ideology of Valentines Day

Natalie got a note from school mandating that everybody make Valentines for everybody else, which stated: "Valentine cards do not have to be purchased; in fact, homemade cards seems to mean more to the children. They very much enjoy making and giving things to their friends." If they enjoy so much, you'd think there'd be no need to put forth a rule that they do so.

I kind of bridle at this dictum. Is it the role of the school to transmit this kind of ideology? I dunno. Some think the school system should be a prime purveyor of "values," and to a certain extent it should. But this low level anti-commercialist, craftsy stuff, however much I may agree with it, doesn't seem what schools should be concentrating on.

It reminds me of the recent PBS special after the death of Charles Schultz. When the Charlie Brown Xmas special first aired, it was a tremendous success, a TV history watershed, as it launched a broadside at the commercialization of Xmas and the holiday's loss of authenticity. And it remains a perennial favorite, my kids love it, I love it, the music is deeply ingrained in the Yuletide canon, but the urge to spend and adorn at Christmas remains as strong as ever. Retail numbers in December drive the markets, the Street, the macroeconomic outlook in general. How can earnest anti-commercialism and the Gods of the Mall live in such peace and harmony?

I am reminded of what Baudrillard said of Watergate:

Watergate. Same scenario as Disneyland (an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter): though here it is a scandal-effect concealing that there is no difference between the facts and their denunciation (identical methods are employed by the CIA and the Washington Post journalists). Same operation, though this time tending towards scandal as a means to regenerate a moral and political principle, towards the imaginary as a means to regenerate a reality principle in distress.
That is, the annual genuflection before Schulz's critique of consumption sets us free to load up as we see fit.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

My many accessories

I now have gloves, scarf, Blackberry, cell phone, car keys. It had been some time since I had lost anything more serious than a pair of cheap sunglasses.

But today, as I sat down on the train, most distressingly found that I had lost my swanky glasses, which I had picked out exactly one year ago tomorrow. Not cheap, either. And the last time I saw them, on the subway, I remember being so proud of myself for remembering to take them off with two hands, so as not the bend them.

Fat lot of good that did me. All thanks and praise to jah for my new vision insurance.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bitch in black

This morning as I came down Broadway past Ground Zero and in front of Chase and Brown Brothers Harriman, I spotted a woman all in black. Rail thin, on stilletto heels obscured by mock bell bottoms or whatever you call them, she can't have weighed more than 100 lbs, including her carefully and (I'm sure, in some circles) stylishly touseled hair, but she walked with a firm sense of purpose. Stylish sunglasses protected her against nothing. Shiny black I'm sure expensive bag. She was accessorized to the max, driving hard towards her goal, whatever it was. I was glad I wasn't between her and it, between her and anything, really.

She was a vision from something.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

MLKJ Day, Exxon station, Hamilton, NJ

With Tuesday teed up to be the worst day in the markets since 9/11, with the whole world spooked, I had on this Martin Luther King Jr Day one of those experiences which gives one faith in America, or, rather the pluralistic America we were brought up to believe in.

After dropping off a bunch of kids' stuff at a thrift store in Hamilton, NJ where I was attended to by a Mexican guy in a slick black leather jacket and bright white cotton gloves (shades of Thriller-era Michael Jackson), I went to fill up the car at an Exxon station. While there, it occurred to me that they might have shaving cream in the convenience store there, which would save me a stop and really justify the convenience part of the name. So I go in there and look around but I'm not seeing it and the the guy behind the register calls out to me: "What's going on there?" And then he points me to the shaving cream, up near the register (probably because the blades next to it are the most expensive thing in the store, display inch for display inch).

As I was completing my purchase, I hear the door behind me open the guy at the register looks up and cries out – “JD!” sounding for all the world like a frat boy pretending to be a rapper. JD swaggers back behind the counter and the two share a chest bump hug, and then start talking to each other happily in Urdu or Tamil or Farsi or whatever they spoke, probably not Hindi because as I looked up to my left I noticed a picture of the store’s proprietor lounging in something fez-like and a vest more Islamic than not, next to a picture of a mosque.

Once back outside, I saw that my car had pumped full but the hose was still in my tank and my credit card was just sitting there in the slot. Another attendant walked over from the other set of pumps and then, when he saw me getting back into my car with my transaction still dangling, he RAN over, got the receipt, put the hose away, and dashed round to give me my card.

And so, after the MLKJ day, I think that I saw something of King’s legacy was reflected at that convenience store. An strong and vibrant immigrant community half a world away from its home. A mercantile ethos that values the account of some strange, beat-up car enough to hustle to keep it.

Heading into a day of great uncertainty on Wall St, this was instructive. 75 bps may have staved off disaster for now but who knows for how long. After a period when America was effectively the developing world’s preferred place to outsource investment acumen (via dollar pegs and sovereign investments in our govt debt), we don’t look like the savviest investors now. America is going to need to figure out what of value it has to offer to the world. They’re not going to come buy Detroit’s crappy cars, the new Malibu or no. Hollywood can only make so many movies. The one thing of lasting value we have is a friendly climate for newcomers, which fosters IP. So long as we remember to have it.

Odd quiet

Wall Street is oddly quiet today. People going about their work, one restaurant entirely empty, young bucks walking on the street smoking without coats. Do I detect an undertone of guilt, or am I just projecting?

Stopped by a British journallist in front of the exchange, I issue an opinion but insist on anonymity. Not all that bad anyway.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Return to Return to the Trial, or Western Union still sucks

A few weeks back I reported on my generally crappy experience with Western Union. At that time I had, for the second time, requested a receipt for a phone transaction, whether a snail- or e-mail version, I really don't care, but it's needed for tax reporting. 3 weeks and change later, I still don't have squat. Because people like to Google this string, I'll say it again: Western Union sucks.


Last night I cut Graham's hair, for the first time in perhaps seven-eight months. Since he trimmed his own bangs a few months ago, he had come to look much like a mini-me of Ewan McGregor from Velvet Goldmine. Minus the spangles, usually. There has been much speculation that his haircut aversion is evidence of Sensory Integration Disorder, and while this thesis has by no means been disproved, his hair is, at least, much shorter and more manageable. I'll try to do some follow-up trimmage in upcoming days.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Waste of a holiday

Martin Luther King Jr Day is such a waste. Not, mind you, that I don't support commemorating the life of King. In that sense it's as worthy a holiday as we have, well more so than say, Presidents' Day, Columbus Day, Labor Day, etc.

No no, it's just that we don't need a holiday in January, we just had a bunch. What would be good is a holiday in March or April. Problem is, all of the commemorable events in King's life cluster near other holidays. The "I have a Dream Speech" was right near Labor Day. On the other hand, the "Bloody Sunday" of the march on Selma was March 25, and he was assasinated on April 4 (like Lincoln, who got nailed April 14).

So we will just have to live with not working this Monday.

The Tipping Point

I stole a copy of Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling extravaganza The Tipping Point off of the shelf in George's room in Larchmont. He's a smart guy and he pulls together lots of disparate material -- some of it interesting -- but it doesn't, at the end of the day, cohere. Here's what he tells us about social "epidemics":

  1. They are spearheaded by charismatic, well-connected people ("Salesmen", "Mavens", "Connectors") who know how to boil things down so they make sense to people
  2. They are "sticky," well-thought out and placed for their audiences
  3. Something else, which I should remember because he repeats it and would remember if it made sense and hung together
This book has been a huge business best seller, and has presumably been influential. I'll bet you executives the land around discuss what it means to their businesses in frequent flier clubs. But I don't see how telling them to have well-targeted products in the hands of well-connected smooth talker adds a whole lot to the discussion.


To my expansive readership,

I have recently begun commuting to the Big Apple from this little whatever you would call it. Which means I get home late and tired, on top of which I'm not really supposed to post to the blog at work. Which in turn means that it's gonna be hard to establish a rhythm of posting, at least for a few weeks, so I will ask you to bear with me as I work it out, don't foresake the Grouse. I should probably write my blog on the train and post it when I get home, but to do that I need to get a seat for starters (OK that's not usually so hard) and not have some work that I've promised for later that evening or the next morning (harder). Or, alternately, not be too tired (the hardest).

Could be I end up starting to be more of a weekend poster.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Delicious quiche

Mary made a delicious quiche this evening, and then enumerated all the virtues and downsides of its various ingredients. To wit, its high fat content. And the quiche has a cruel transparency about it, you just glance at it and calculate how many of those fat grams have gone down already. But delicious nonetheless.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Ever since I got my Blackberry, which is set on a demure vibrate like its cousin my cell phone, whenever I hear a vibration I think it's someone dinging me with an all-important email. Which is on occasion true, but more often it's the chassis of the train or the heating system of the building or even (blast it!) someone else's Blackberry. It's very wierd to have vibration (along with ringing, screaming, glass breaking, etc.) hauled into the domain of signifying sounds. And not altogether good.

Just when I think....

I've made my way out of the gutter, they reach up and pull me back in.

When I go to Statcounter to view the traffic for this blog, it offers a paid service for me to "Increase your log size!"

None of the industrious comment-adders of this blog can improve much on that one.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

My tax dollars, hardly working

Seated comfortably at my desk this morning (something we won't be seeing much of starting soon), I heard a rumbling from the street, and what did I see? One of the Borough dump trucks being trailed by this claw loader (or whatever it's called, Graham and Mary were of no help) which was picking up Christmas trees. Talk about overkill. That's a lot of emissions for a pretty simple job, but hey, if you've got heavy equipment you'd better use it for something. Princeton should sell the loader, rent one when it needs one, and pay some dude from the pueblo 14 bux an hour to walk along and throw the trees in the back of a truck. Ditch half the FTEs.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hot Fuzz

The trailer for this British satire is not better than OK, so we didn't know what we were in for when we rented it. This is one clever movie. Occasionally it's a little mechanical and it keeps working the same jokes, but still it's fresh, funny, and full of surprises. It won't change your life or anything like that, but it will make you LOL, as they say. Rent it, if you haven't.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Some Ideas

How about open source calendaring? I'm sure it's out there. You could sign up to have events from vendors you select pop up as suggestions on your calendar. You could even have affinity algorithms like they use at Amazon learn about you and suggests events based on prior purchases. Not send things to your inbox, but pencil it on your calendar as a possibility. Click thru to order tickets, select seats, etc.

How bout this: on top of the play areas they currently have for small children, grocery stores should add reading rooms for older kids with comfy chairs where they can take their books.

This last thing is the kind of amenity we're unlikely to see in the recession which is either underway or imminent, though there will be plenty of fallow real estate available for this or other uses.

Which actually leads me to another thought: it's time to start dreaming out what new's gonna come out of this recession. The tech bubble, for example, left a huge overhang of excess telecoms capacity, has that been worked off? Nobody writes about it anymore. And the recession itself begat not only cheap money and the housing bubble but also a really vibrant web with real business models and 2.0 too.

If we don't want to put our hispanic workforce in all the excess housing that nobody wants to pay for, why don't we repurpose much of it from residential to retail so that there will be a store in every neighborhood and people won't have to drive so far to get milk? And we could also use some of those houses to grow high end killer pot, which we could then export to offset the current account deficit. Don't let nobody tell you there are no options.

Taking out the tree, and more

Natalie was pretty wistful about our taking down the tree last night. She was close to tears, but I consoled her by telling her that it was supposed to snow 3-5 inches overnight (Then, of course, it didn't, despite 90% probability on the treacherous

Who would ever suspect that this sweet, sensitive child would have been found pummelling her little baby brother in the back while he wailed away that same afternoon? I had left them out of my sight for like 45 seconds while looking for play date material for her, and there she was just banging on his back.

Sibling stuff is not simple.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Low-impact transparency

Steve was just over and talking about a lecture on grass he recently went to, about how the guy was saying that grass was so perfect for competition and neighborhood peer pressure because it's so visible.

One's carbon footprint, on the other hand, is anything but visible. Yes, the size of your car is visible, but how much do your drive it? The size of your house is visible, but how well is it insulated? How much do you heat it? How much of it do you heat? Etc.

If greater transparancy could be had around footprints, people's behavior could change. What if everyone in a town (or a select plurality) registered odometer readings on Jan 1 and then on 12/31? Give out prices to the house with the lowest mileage, the block with the lowest mileage (to enclose carpooling). Get people into it year 1, then in year 2 expand the competition to include more metrics (kilowatt hrs, therms). Have towns compete with each other for per capita footprint, etc.

The main idea is to get people into really monitoring themselves and to make it fun. But also to be transparent about it. There's a lot of peer pressure around dandelions and other weeds in the suburbs, neighbors may hiss at you behind your back if you're suspected of infecting their lawn. Lets put some more of that superego nastiness into the discourse of global warming.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Meat arbitrage -- a behavioral analysis

When putting together breakfast sandwiches, Manhattan's sandwich smiths display curiously anomalous behavior. They put one sausage patty on there with your eggs (there are those who also order cheese), but ca 3 pieces of bacon. Now, as anyone who has ordered in a suburban restaurant can tell you, there is rough parity between sausage patties and slices of bacon, sometimes 2 sausage patties is sold for the cost of 3 slices of bacon, sometimes you go 3 for 3.

In Manhattan, however, the fact that sausage patties are a little bigger than bacon slices confuses the handlers, who do not have a well-formed concept of intrinsic meat unit parity.

This, of course, suggests a possible play, wherein multiple slices of (underpriced) bacon might be sourced in the city and transported to the suburbs, for some mad profits. Just don't tell anybody, or this window of arb opportunity will slam mercilessly shut.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Verka Serduchka

From Kevin. An interesting video. Doesn't go where you think it's going. This guy is apparently something of a Ukrainian Borat. I will watch more.

From the website of Andrey Danilko, "What is the secret of such popularity of Verka Serduchka? Maybe it is in the fact that she is able to amuse people and grant them only positive emotions." Yeah, except not.

Tough love

The Times this morning reported that Wall Street wants Bernanke to be "tougher," to deliver more hard news about the economy to the public. And how should he show this toughness? By lowering interest rates, of course. Free money is a tough nut to swallow.

Now, I'm no economist, so I don't know how M1, M2, M3 and all that interrelate, but I seem to recall that the ultra-accomodative monetary policy of the post 9/11 Greenspan-led Fed is said to have played a large part in pumping up the current bubble. Isn't the dollar to weak for us to be printing money? Wouldn't we be passing the credit risk back to the Treasury, further weakening the dollar's status as preferred reserve currency, driving foreign Treasuries out of T-bills and thereby pushing rates right back up?

And how, in the face of all this, are we going to allocate the 1-2% of GDP that experts say is necessary for America to attack climate change amelioriation in an effective way? We're not, of course, the short term demands of keeping the malls running will take precedence.

What America needs now is to take its medicine. Less consumption, less expansion, more concerted effort at the big CYA.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Modesto Proposal

The powers that be have been bandying about a number of ideas for the dealing with the mortgage part of the credit crunch. Proposals have been floated to let ARMs run for a full 30 years at their teaser rate. This is mildly vexing for those of us who calculated how much house we could buy and how much risk we could assume in purchasing our homes, and therefore opted for the "safe" 30-year fixed route. One way or another, we will share the bill for this excess with those who failed to exercise restraint.

But there's a great way we could address this. Why not structure a deal to let all of those who borrowed and/or bought more than they could afford use their excess space (defined as the space they borrowed for but couldn't afford) more effectively? Let those with mortgages to be modified house the homeless, the Katrina victims, the Hispanic and other legal and illegal immigrants currently jammed quietly into small living spaces for the privilege of making our super size me services sector affordable through grey economy labor? What else are the McMansions (and other more modest stretches) of recent vintage for if not for housing people?

(La gente, unida, nunca sera vencida)

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Wanderlust and wonder lost

I don't know where I heard of Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts, the New Yorker or the New York Time or somesuch, at any rate I'm sure it had New York in the title. In it, the author recounts his 1933 journey on foot (with help from boats) from jolly old England where he had been booted from school across good old Mitteleuropa. The review must have pretty well glowed, cuz I put it on my wishlist and was psyched to get it. The book's introduction is written by a big fan, who coos about Leigh Fermor's well-etched style. Indeed.

The book suffers from a surfeit of style. Much as I wanted to love this freebootin young rapscallion, I found myself deeply frustrated by his need to continually play tricks with point of view (I was drunk so it's all in an art-schoool haze) and to lard on the writerly, without really telling us much (the people were so simple, so pure, so nice. I was cold so the food and beds were welcome).

It all seemed deucedly familiar. Where had I seen this before? A Brit going on foot through snow and recounting adventures? Why, how about Rory Stewart's recently lauded The Places in Between, about trekking across Afghanistan. Also self-absorbed and dead boring. Read 70 pages maybe before setting it out to gather dust.

I think, maybe, the moral for me is that sending some introspective young UKer off on a journey on foot into snow and dirt is probably not going to make for a good read, however much fun it sounds like.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Yahoos on the sidelines

Every time I make her watch any sporting event Mary goes off about how sports are ridiculous, in particular the face painted drunk screaming yahoos. I have often argued that sports give those people, and those of us who sometimes act like them, a place to vent and keeps them off the streets so that the rest of us can do business safely.

And then this morning the NY Times we see economists have done research indicating that violence in movies can be correlated, in the short term at least, with a decrease in violent crime. I.e. violent movies give those inclined to violence (teen and 20s guys) something to do rather than go out and bash heads. Critics are already railing that this analysis doesn't account for long-term adverse effects of, say, depictions of decapitations and gang-bangs and whatnot, and that's a valid thought.

But fundamentally, I buy it, and I think the same principal is at work in sport. As back in the Roman day with the Colisseum, keep em off the streets, give em some catharsis -- be it sports or film -- and let em work it out by proxy.

Look at the violence in Kenya now in the run up to the presidential elections, to say nothing of the Hutu-Tutsi days in the Great Lakes area. This violence seems to bespeak an absence of sufficient representational proxy.

Sunday, January 06, 2008


Alright so we pulled it out of a hat against Clemson this evening, which is great and all, and yet...

For proper seasoning, Carolina needs to take a loss or two here in the middle of the season, and this would have been a good one to lose. The ACC only has three ranked teams, which is pretty weak, and Clemson is junior amongst them. And Clemson played its little orange heart out, they really kind of earned the win, they just blew it.

After a period of paranoia, I'll open the floor up for comment again.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Epic man on a string

Listening to Friends of Old time Music, a landmark Smithsonian collection from the early 60s. ON Disc 2 Doc Watson sings the "Hicks' Farewell", in which a guy about to die or somesuch writes home to his kin. In the song, a Watson's sings accompanied by a violin, which tracks the melody alongside the lyric and does almost nothing else. This in turn reminded me of a scene from an early Kusturica movie (I think it is Do you remember Dolly Bell) where a father figure sits in a courtyard and plays the gusla and sings a plaint for Bosnia as the protagonist and his older brother wrestle in the stone courtyard and grind each others faces into the stone. I think there's a similar epic tradition in Persian and/or India, an epic tune sung to the tight melodic accompaniment of rudimentary stringed instrument. It'd be interesting to dig into this parallel for real, in my ample spare time.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A Child's Christmas in Wales

Graham just loves this book, speaks to him. First time for me too. It really is a cut above the general lot of Xmas Children's fare, which is itself not too shabby.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Gusla Player

A video from Moscow noise band Череп скелета (Skeleton Skull).

It's not brilliant, but gives a good idea of why Russians are bored and alienated and what they do about it.