Monday, March 31, 2008

Full speed

After a grisly day, energy sapped by haven woken up at 4am and not gotten back to sleep for real before 5:45 wakie wakie time, everybody at work consumed by similarly low energy and loping negativity, I walked the streets of lower Manhattan looking for something interesting. And there, around 8:30pm along Duane St between Broadway and Trimble Street, he came... Some Hispanic pizza delivery guy -- having delivered a pie -- came sprinting past, his thermal pizza bag drooping by his side. Sprinting, mind you, flat out, and no pizzeria within blocks.

That's what I call a good attitude. He wasn't sitting around kvetching about things being behind and implying it was somebody in the skyscraper across the way's fault. He was porting pies.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Leaving the little guys behind

Marketwatch today reported on how many people fleeing homes and mortgages are leaving behind pets: dogs, cats, you name it. This took me back to the good old days in Moscow, where it was the habit of folks to leave animals behind in the city when they went to the country to their dachas in the summer. I know, it doesn't make sense, you'd think the animals would be happy and useful in the country side, but maybe they wouldn't let them on trains, whatever.

In any case, what you'd end up with was packs of wild dogs, roaming the streets. And yes, some of them became rapid. And yes, they were also pretty pathetic and and liked to be fed. And there are specific classes of rubber-tear gas bulletspouting sawed off handguns that experts consider optimal for deterring packs of wild dogs. I kid you not.

One of these days, if I get enough energy, I will tell you the tale of the one we called devushka.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Soccer War

I had heard of Ryszard Kapuscinsky for some time, so I snagged The Soccer War, a memoir of good old days in Africa with Lumumba and Nkrumah and whatnot. Reads like a mix of butter and Camus and Dan Rather. More later.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Zillow for 2.0

The social promise of 2.0 is belied by, on the one hand, the randomness with which we encounter it. Wouldn't it be nice if there were self-tagging framework by which one could tag one's content: a zip code, age bracket, religion, income category, etc. Then one could really navigate the user-created space and dig into it. So could marketers, admittedly, but the products we got would be better targeted.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

I am a pervert?

Just went across the street to Gristede's so snag some Vintage seltzer. I was wearing my black trench coat over sweatpants and business shoes. I looked like a flasher. I just know that -- when I showed up at the register with ten liters of discount bubbly, they were tittering amongst themselves "here comes that seltzer fetishist again."

Monday, March 24, 2008

Independence Day, the end

So after grousing about Richard Ford's Independence Day I soldiered through to the end and was deeply rewarding. Although it's less minimalistly anti-dramatic than the 200 pages of Crime and Punishment after Raskol'nikov murders the pawnbroker, during which the protagonist lies on his fetid couch, stares at yellow floral patterns in greasy old wallpaper and dreams delusionally fed by his visitors' conversations about (among other things) the crime he committed, the middle section of Ford's novel serves a similar purpose. Our hero is stuck in life, and has to divine a way forward and a way to connect with the people around him. And he does. And it works. And now I have to decide if I read The Sportswriter which was the first novel in the trilogy, or the subsequent one. But read them I will, in due time.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Beirut, again

It astonishes me no small amount that a band this young could make me anticipate nostalgia so eagerly.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Ethics of Travel Soccer

Plenty of people criticize travel soccer for hauling them all over the place on weekends, but I predict a real backlash against travelling competitive sports in the near future for the simple reason that... there's too much driving involved. As gas stays expensive, the cost driver will be one thing, but from a footprint perspective it is also more than a little abhorrent.

I talked to a woman today who argued that travel soccer gives kids more competition than the milquetoast lower leagues. But what about the effect it has of removing all the alpha athletes from the pool shared by the less competitive? Doesn't it deprive these kids of benchmarks and weaken their own competitive instinct? I dunno, I don't like it.

To continue the distorto-funk trend of yesterday, here's a link to Vernon Reid at his most shining moment.

Defunkt - Ooh Baby

Thursday, March 20, 2008

What we all want

Walking downtown from a drink a midtown, blustery wind blows, full moon shines down. Two teenage girls hugged and squealed and danced in a circle in front of the Whole Foods on Union Square, quite new to me. As I walked and checked out all the many new shiny boites, it once again washed over me how little I could care about Manhattan at this stage in my life. And then I got a shwarma on Macdougal St and saw the chess stores and clubs were still there, and all was better, for a few minutes, at least.

Gang of Four, 1982

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The rumbling in the market's tummy

Today was a nasty day on the Street, with all the major indices down in excess of 2%. Apparently, the Fed was taking a little siesta, as it offered up no rate cuts, no special deals at the discount window, squatarama. Admittedly the $200 billion dollar bump from changing statutory reserving requirements for Fannie and Freddie seemed to get us through the morning OK but heh, a market gets hungry by lunch time and really needs a little something to get through the day. But no nothing. Bernanke didn't even order up any Chinese take-out. What do you expect a market to do, under such conditions?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Time to read, not write

I was a little down on Independence Day when last I wrote about it, but I have stayed the course and kept reading -- drawn in no doubt by the fucked-up father-son dynamics -- and am now waiting with bated breath to find out if Paul will have good vision in the eye purposefully put in the way of a 75mph fastball at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown just to tweak his dad, who had just tried to force on him a degree of intimacy unreasonable to expect of any 15-year boy, let alone a clearly disaffected and antisocial one. So I need to go read now, if you will excuse me.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Extraordinary adventures with the Fed

The Fed has recently begun to trot out new approaches to inject liquidity into the economy, beyond the tried and true discount rate reductions. Recent stories which have been kept a little bit quiet include:

  • "The Fed and Applebees partner to bring Casual Dining Value."
    In an unprecedented foray into cobranding, The Federal Reserve Bank and Applebees announced an initiative to bring a 2-for-1 entree (with a complementary beverage) to all American households in time for the Easter Weekend. In anticipation of higher than average volume at Applebees restaurants around the country, FEMA units will be mobilized to provide variable labor capacity. Several Wall Street Analysts quickly revised upwards their projections for Applebees same-store sales for the quarter. Stopped on the streets of Harrisburg, PA for comment, pipe fitter Jim Snarksdale commented, "Mmmm, I love that Applejack Chicken sandwich." His girlfriend favored the shrimp caesar salad.

  • "Bernanke provides Much-Needed Liquidity to Inner-City Neighborhood"
    In an unprecedented foray into direct liquidity provision to an underserved market, Chairman Ben Bernanke visited with African-American youths in New York's Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood flanked by microlending guru Mohammed Yunus and armed with a hydrant wrench . After a brief peroration extolling the virtues of entrepreneurialism, Bernanke proclaimed that by an extraordinary dispensation spring was beginning four days early, and opened a hydrant. Much hijinks did ensue.

  • "Fed Attempts to Preemptively enlists Gates Foundation in as yet undetermined Rescue"
    Its own resources growing thin after a busy week, the Fed has according to unnamed sources submitted a proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to secure a line of credit to be used to bail out financial institutions. The Foundation has apparently assented to the request, contingent upon a signed guarantee that any institutions rescued with Foundation money will install Vista on all desktops and ban the use of Firefox and block all searches using Google.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Librarians at their best

There is a retired couple in our old neighborhood that never had kids because they were too devoted to their careers as librarians (I kid you not) up at the college. The woman, apparently, regrets it, as she sends copious cards for many occasions.

This easter is no exception, and she sent Natalie a card with a pop-up fluffy bunny (which she loved) and Graham one which sang "Here comes Peter Cottontail" when you opened it in a post Bing Crosby kinda way. Graham went apeshit, playing the card over and over again, bouncing up and down on the couch giggling. That's what you call finding your audience.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Malaise Speech

Jimmy Carter, July 1979. This took guts, and got him fired.

Good evening.

This is a special night for me. Exactly 3 years ago, on July 15, 1976, I accepted the nomination of my party to run for President of the United States. I promised you a President who is not isolated from the people, who feels your pain, and who shares your dreams and who draws his strength and his wisdom from you.

During the past 3 years I've spoken to you on many occasions about national concerns, the energy crisis, reorganizing the Government, our Nation's economy, and issues of war and especially peace. But over those years the subjects of the speeches, the talks, and the press conferences have become increasingly narrow, focused more and more on what the isolated world of Washington thinks is important. Gradually, you've heard more and more about what the Government thinks or what the Government should be doing and less and less about our Nation's hopes, our dreams, and our vision of the future.

Ten days ago I had planned to speak to you again about a very important subject -- energy. For the fifth time I would have described the urgency of the problem and laid out a series of legislative recommendations to the Congress. But as I was preparing to speak, I began to ask myself the same question that I now know has been troubling many of you. Why have we not been able to get together as a nation to resolve our serious energy problem?

It's clear that the true problems of our Nation are much deeper -- deeper than gasoline lines of energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession. And I realize more than ever that as President I need your help. So, I decided to reach out and listen to the voices of America.

I invited to Camp David people from almost every segment of our society business and labor, teachers and preachers, Governors, mayors, and private citizens. And then I left Camp David to listen to other Americans, men and women like you. It has been an extraordinary 10 days, and I want to share with you what I've heard. First of all, I got a lot of personal advice. Let me quote a few of the typical comments that I wrote down.

This from a southern Governor: "Mr. President, you are not leading this Nation -- you're just managing the Government."

"You don't see the people enough any more."

"Some of your Cabinet members don't seem loyal. There is not enough discipline among your disciples."

"Don't talk to us about politics or the mechanics of government, but about an understanding of our common good."

"Mr. President, we're in trouble. Talk to us about blood and sweat and tears."

"If you lead, Mr. President, we will follow."

Many people talked about themselves and about the condition of our Nation. This from a young woman in Pennsylvania: "I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power."

And this from a young Chicano: "Some of us have suffered from recession all our lives."

"Some people have wasted energy, but others haven't had anything to waste."

And this from a religious leader: "No material shortage can touch the important things like God's love for us or our love for one another."

And I like this one particularly from a black woman who happens to be the mayor of a small Mississippi town: "The big-shots are not the only ones who are important. Remember, you can't sell anything on Wall Street unless someone digs it up somewhere else first."

This kind of summarized a lot of other statements: "Mr. President, we are confronted with a moral and a spiritual crisis."

Several of our discussions were on energy, and I have a notebook full of comments and advice. I'll read just a few.

"We can't go on consuming 40 percent more energy than we produce. When we import oil we are also importing inflation plus unemployment."

"We've got to use what we have. The Middle East has only 5 percent of the world's energy, but the United States has 24 percent."

And this is one of the most vivid statements: "Our neck is stretched over the fence and OPEC has a knife."

"There will be other cartels and other shortages. American wisdom and courage right now can set a path to follow in the future."

This was a good one: "Be bold, Mr. President. We may make mistakes, but we are ready to experiment."

And this one from a labor leader got to the heart of it: "The real issue is freedom. We must deal with the energy problem on a war footing."

And the last that I'll read: "When we enter the moral equivalent of war, Mr. President, don't issue us BB guns."

These 10 days confirmed my belief in the decency and the strength and the wisdom of the American people, but it also bore out some of my longstanding concerns about our Nation's underlying problems.

I know, of course, being President, that government actions and legislation can be very important. That's why I've worked hard to put my campaign promises into law -- and I have to admit, with just mixed success. But after listening to the American people I have been reminded again that all the legislation in the world can't fix what's wrong with America. So, I want to speak to you first tonight about a subject even more serious than energy or inflation. I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy.

I do not mean our political and civil liberties. They will endure. And I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might.

The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our Nation.

The erosion of our confidence in the future is threatening to destroy the social and the political fabric of America.

The confidence that we have always had as a people is not simply some romantic dream or a proverb in a dusty book that we read just on the Fourth of July. It is the idea which founded our Nation and has guided our development as a people. Confidence in the future has supported everything else -- public institutions and private enterprise, our own families, and the very Constitution of the United States. Confidence has defined our course and has served as a link between generations. We've always believed in something called progress. We've always had a faith that the days of our children would be better than our own.

Our people are losing that faith, not only in government itself but in the ability as citizens to serve as the ultimate rulers and shapers of our democracy. As a people we know our past and we are proud of it. Our progress has been part of the living history of America, even the world. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself called democracy, involved in the search for freedom, and that belief has always strengthened us in our purpose. But just as we are losing our confidence in the future, we are also beginning to close the door on our past.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

The symptoms of this crisis of the American spirit are all around us. For the first time in the history of our country a majority of our people believe that the next 5 years will be worse than the past 5 years. Two-thirds of our people do not even vote. The productivity of American workers is actually dropping, and the willingness of Americans to save for the future has fallen below that of all other people in the Western world.

As you know, there is a growing disrespect for government and for churches and for schools, the news media, and other institutions. This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.

These changes did not happen overnight. They've come upon us gradually over the last generation, years that were filled with shocks and tragedy.

We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. We were taught that our armies were always invincible and our causes were always just, only to suffer the agony of Vietnam. We respected the Presidency as a place of honor until the shock of Water gate.

We remember when the phrase "sound as a dollar" was an expression of absolute dependability, until 10 years of inflation began to shrink our dollar and our savings. We believed that our Nation's re sources were limitless until 1973, when we had to face a growing dependence on foreign oil.

These wounds are still very deep. They have never been healed.

Looking for a way out of this crisis, our people have turned to the Federal Government and found it isolated from the mainstream of our Nation's life. Washington, D.C., has become an island. The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

What you see too often in Washington and elsewhere around the country is a system of government that seems incapable of action. You see a Congress twisted and pulled in every direction by hundreds of well financed and powerful special interests. You see every extreme position defended to the last vote, almost to the last breath by one unyielding group or another. You often see a balanced and a fair approach that demands sacrifice, a little sacrifice from everyone, abandoned like an orphan without support and without friends.

Often you see paralysis and stagnation and drift. You don't like, and neither do I. What can we do?

First of all, we must face the truth, and then we can change our course. We simply must have faith in each other, faith in our ability to govern ourselves, and faith in the future of this Nation. Restoring that faith and that confidence to America is now the most important task we face. It is a true challenge of this generation of Americans.

One of the visitors to Camp David last week put it this way: "We've got to stop crying and start sweating, stop talking and start walking, stop cursing and start praying. The strength we need will not come from the White House, but from every house in America."

We know the strength of America. We are strong. We can regain our unity. We can regain our confidence. We are the heirs of generations who survived threats much more powerful and awesome than those that challenge us now. Our fathers and mothers were strong men and women who shaped a new society during the Great Depression, who fought world wars, and who carved out a new charter of peace for the world.

We ourselves and the same Americans who just 10 years ago put a man on the Moon. We are the generation that dedicated our society to the pursuit of human rights and equality. And we are the generation that will win the war on the energy problem and in that process rebuild the unity and confidence of America.

We are at a turning point in our history. There are two paths to choose. One is a path I've warned about tonight, the path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest. Down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom, the right to grasp for ourselves some advantage over others. That path would be one of constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility. It is a certain route to failure.

All the traditions of our past, all the lessons of our heritage, all the promises of our future point to another path, the path of common purpose and the restoration of American values. That path leads to true freedom for our Nation and ourselves. We can take the first steps down that path as we begin to solve our energy problem.

Energy will be the immediate test of our ability to unite this Nation, and it can also be the standard around which we rally. On the battlefield of energy we can win for our Nation a new confidence, and we can seize control again of our common destiny.

In little more than two decades we've gone from a position of energy independence to one in which almost half the oil we use comes from foreign countries, at prices that are going through the roof. Our excessive dependence on OPEC has already taken a tremendous tool on our economy and our people. This is the direct cause of the long lines which have made millions of you spend aggravating hours waiting for gasoline. It's a cause of the increased inflation and unemployment that we now face. This intolerable dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence and the very security of our Nation.

The energy crisis is real. It is worldwide. It is a clear and present danger to our Nation. These are facts and we simply must face them.

What I have to say to you now about energy is simple and vitally important.

Point one: I am tonight setting a clear goal for the energy policy of the United States. Beginning this moment, this Nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 -- never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation. The generation-long growth in our dependence on foreign oil will be stopped dead in its tracks right now and then reversed as we move through the 1980's, for I am tonight setting the further goal of cutting our dependence on foreign oil by one-half by the end of the next decade -- a saving of over 4 1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day.

Point two: To ensure that we meet these targets, I will use my Presidential authority to set import quotas. I'm announcing tonight that for 1979 and 1980, I will forbid the entry into this country of one drop of foreign oil more than these goals allow. These quotas will ensure a reduction in imports even below the ambitious levels we set at the recent Tokyo summit.

Point three: To give us energy security, I am asking for the most massive peacetime commitment of funds and resources in our Nation's history to develop America's own alternative sources of fuel -- from coal, from oil shale, from plant products for gasohol, from unconventional gas, from the Sun.

I propose the creation of an energy security corporation to lead this effort to replace 2 1/2 million barrels of imported oil per day by 1990. The corporation will issue up to $5 billion in energy bonds, and I especially want them to be in small denominations so that average Americans can invest directly in America's energy security.

Just as a similar synthetic rubber corporation helped us win World War II, so will we mobilize American determination and ability to win the energy war. Moreover, I will soon submit legislation to Congress calling for the creation of this Nation's first solar bank, which will help us achieve the crucial goal of 20 percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000.

These efforts will cost money, a lot of money, and that is why Congress must enact the windfall profits tax without delay. It will be money well spent. Unlike the billions of dollars that we ship to foreign countries to pay for foreign oil, these funds will be paid by Americans to Americans. These funds will go to fight, not to increase, inflation and unemployment.

Point four: I'm asking Congress to mandate, to require as a matter of law, that our Nation's utility companies cut their massive use of oil by 50 percent within the next decade and switch to other fuels, especially coal, our most abundant energy source.

Point five: To make absolutely certain that nothing stands in the way of achieving these goals, I will urge Congress to create an energy mobilization board which, like the War Production Board in World War II, will have the responsibility and authority to cut through the redtape, the delays, and the endless roadblocks to completing key energy projects.

We will protect our environment. But when this Nation critically needs a refinery or a pipeline, we will build it.

Point six: I'm proposing a bold conservation program to involve every State, county, and city and every average American in our energy battle. This effort will permit you to build conservation into your homes and your lives at a cost you can afford.

I ask Congress to give me authority for mandatory conservation and for standby gasoline rationing. To further conserve energy, I'm proposing tonight an extra $10 billion over the next decade to strengthen our public transportation systems. And I'm asking you for your good and for your Nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense -- I tell you it is an act of patriotism.

Our Nation must be fair to the poorest among us, so we will increase aid to needy Americans to cope with rising energy prices. We often think of conservation only in terms of sacrifice. In fact, it is the most painless and immediate way of rebuilding our Nation's strength. Every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production. It gives us more freedom, more confidence, that much more control over our own lives.

So, the solution of our energy crisis can also help us to conquer the crisis of the spirit in our country. It can rekindle our sense of unity, our confidence in the future, and give our Nation and all of us individually a new sense of purpose.

You know we can do it. We have the natural resources. We have more oil in our shale alone than several Saudi Arabias. We have more coal than any nation on Earth. We have the world's highest level of technology. We have the most skilled work force, with innovative genius, and I firmly believe that we have the national will to win this war.

I do not promise you that this struggle for freedom will be easy. I do not promise a quick way out of our Nation's problems, when the truth is that the only way out is an all-out effort. What I do promise you is that I will lead our fight, and I will enforce fairness in our struggle, and I will ensure honesty. And above all, I will act.

We can manage the short-term shortages more effectively and we will, but there are no short-term solutions to our long-range problems. There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.

Twelve hours from now I will speak again in Kansas City, to expand and to explain further our energy program. Just as the search for solutions to our energy shortages has now led us to a new awareness of our Nation's deeper problems, so our willingness to work for those solutions in energy can strengthen us to attack those deeper problems.

I will continue to travel this country, to hear the people of America. You can help me to develop a national agenda for the 1980's. I will listen and I will act. We will act together. These were the promises I made 3 years ago, and I intend to keep them.

Little by little we can and we must rebuild our confidence. We can spend until we empty our treasuries, and we may summon all the wonders of science. But we can succeed only if we tap our greatest resources -- America's people, America's values, and America's confidence.

I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy-secure nation.

In closing, let me say this: I will do my best, but I will not do it alone. Let your voice be heard. Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country. With God's help and for the sake of our Nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.

Thank you and good night.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

How old I am

Was once again reminded of my age and station in life this evening at Dos Caminos, a trendy Mexican boite at 50th and 3rd, for my boy Phil's 41st birthday. It being Thursday, the joint was jumping and was packed with many good looking boys and girls of the 20s-30s variety. Time was, the girls part of that equation would have turned me on, but tonight I found myself grateful to be seated next to a guy from Westchester, with whom I could compare commuting tales and discuss children and the joys of being a "consultant" in such a fucked-up economy (he used to sell structured products for a bank, now is assessing one of the injured bond insurers).

In the bathroom of this joint, some junky sycophant in a monkey suit turned on the tap for you when you turned around from the urinal and tried to spritz your hands from a decorative soap dispenser, all in hopes of getting a tip. If I wanted a servant, I'd live in a frickin emerging market, that's what I say to that.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Obama assasination"

The spectre of an Obama assassination has become a popular meme. It has become a top 100 search topic, for chrissakes

I first heard the idea mooted by a bunch of young blacks a few weeks ago on the subway. From the black point of view: it's rank defeatism and self-victimization before the fact: "Even if we get a black man in the White House, they just gonna take him away." From a white people's point of view, it's veiled racism: it would be said of any black candidate with a chance as a reason for not voting for them. Al Sharpton, Allan Keyes and Lenora Fulani have never been worth the bullet.

To be sure, Obama is more assassinable than most candidates, and more than most presidents, with the obvious and glaring exception of the present one, whose continued presence amongst the living and breathing really demonstrates better than anything else the degree of inaction and disaffection of the nation over which he has blustered these long eight years.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Malthus and Hobbes, together again

Yesterday I had conversation with a Russian guy wearing a black shirt about the possibility of an Obama presidency. He immediately ran to the scenario of an Obama assassination and the geopolitical risks to which it would expose us. I will comment on the Obama assassination question under separate cover.

This morning I receive an excerpt from the The Guardian, which has gotten its hands on a report by EU Foreign Policy doyenne Javier Solana (what was his old job, head of UN?) predicting that the race for Arctic petrochemical reserves between the USA and Russia will precipitate "security issues for Europe, ranging from energy wars to mass migration, failed states and political radicalization," and that Europe should plan for these things.

I need only turn my head to the right to read a fellow commuter's Wall Street Journal article on Australia's quest for salt-free water. Luckily they're unlikely to start a war over it.

It seems we are in a neo-Malthusian moment which everywhere focuses on scarcity of resources and risk of conflagration, which is rather tricky for those of us with small children, who have come to believe that eschatological scenarios were long since relegated to Bruce Willis movies, 9/11 notwithstanding. Could there be a really big war in our time? Are our international institutions strong enough to resist it? Recent evidence has been mixed, but world war would kinda suck.

Monday, March 10, 2008

On James Wood

James Wood, I seem to recall, has been called the greatest literary critic of our times. I might be in a better position to judge this assertion, if I could bring myself to read through anything he's written. Time and again I pick up his reviews, waiting for the magic to happen, only to be repulsed by his excess of hauteur. Yes yes, he's erudite, but can he cut to the bone? It is true that literary criticism has lost much of its appeal for me since I decided to stop trying to feed my family by doing it. But still. Wood is now the Professor of the Practice of Criticism at Harvard. It would do him well to look past practice and try to get in the game.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

For shame

Stephen Soderbergh should be deeply ashamed of himself for making movies like the Ocean's series (Eleven and Thirteen, I guess there was a Twelve in there that somehow slipped past). I mean, there are all the cutest boys on there and I'm sure they make money, but they're utterly meatless and implausible. And if he was going to trumpet that much of Ellen Barkin's breasts he might as well have just broke those bad boys out, that's what I say.

Diet globalization and its discontents

The Sunday NY Times published a longish article on the effects of diet globalization, specifically how global growth and biofuel production is driving a demand for wheat and other grains that is difficult to slake. Midwestern farmers are doing well, but the price of bread has risen everywhere, with a big impact on places like Nigeria, where bread is relatively new.

What's difficult to unpack here is how the notional impact of globalization (people coming to believe they should be able to live in a certain way) intersects with the economic realities of scarce resources. Despite (or perhaps because) bread is a relatively new arrival in Nigeria, a Lagos merchant says "I must eat bread and tea in the morning. Otherwise I can't be happy." At a time when first-world consumers are obsessing about the carbon footprint of their food purchases, the emerging world bourgeoisie predicates its sense of self on the presence of commodities from across the world, the environmental externalities of which are quite suspect.

It's just the same as the Chinese and Indian merchant classes wanting cars, needing to replicate the standards of living of the West, but with food.

And it's not like we in the West have given up much either, though the raw economics of the upcoming downturn may help us along.

All in all, it returns me to my longstanding point about Green Baywatch cultural diplomacy: the developing world gets its notion of what a lifestyle should be from us, so we should use mass media to disseminate an idea of what a sustainable lifestyle might look like. The problem is, however, that if America's place in the world has been inexorably reduced courtesy of Iraq, the rise of China and India, and a lengthy credit-driven downturn, nobody will listen to us anymore. And if our ability to produce world-dominating piece of shit soap operas like Dallas and Baywatch has been eroded by the rise of reality TV domestically and cheaper Latin American telenovelas internationally, we can't even find the world's ear.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Up and down

There is an escalator in the place where I work on Wall St that goes between a lobby and a cafeteria. I have never before seen an escalator where such a high percentage of the population walks up and down to speed their path without being forced by a crowd -- like in a train station. Whether this is because they are very busy, because they feel aligned with the firm's mission, or because they fear being observed not bustling in this most public of places, it's impossible to say. In some real sense it doesn't matter. It is part of the culture of this space.


It makes a huge difference to the psyche of the commuter when the sun starts coming out in time to see us to out the door. Nothing is worse than days spent in conference calls and darkness.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Automatic e-bill payment and other wonders

With the advent of automatic e-bill payment and universalized direct deposit, money is being reduced more and more even at the retail level to its purest state, trust. I get pre-tax money for parking subtracted from my paycheck and payed to my parking vendor. As more and more cyclical transactions get automated, we'll be increasingly able to access services just by instantiating relationships, without having to deal with physical tokens like cash, checks, or cards even. So what you have to guard most zealously is your SSN and your PIN, lest someone become you. It's wacky when you think about it.

Oh yeah, Natalie still wants a cat.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Book ithe movie

Idea for a movie: the book is better than the movie. The whole art/reality theme has been played out many times, most recently in the Will Ferrell / Emma Thompson / Latifah Stranger Than Fiction (totally based on an Unamuno novel that we read in frickin high school). But nobody has ever thematized the idea of the book being better than the movie. Probably Spike Jonze is the man for the job.

Imagine a bunch of characters living out their lives only to discover not only that they're living in a movie, but that the movie pales beside the book. Imagine how depressing! Hilarious hijinks ensue. It has the makings of a box office barnburner.


In other news, what's better than a movie -- a video of a political speech. In this case our guy Josh Stein bringin truth to the stompin 16th.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Times on teenage male sexualtiy

In the Sunday Times a week or so back there was an article about how a survey on teenage boys showed that, contrary to pop cultural representations, aren't really all about getting some, but in fact are very interested in relationships. I know that was true for me. As a teenager I always went out with girls I could get because the only thing scarier than sex was being rejected by the girls I actually wanted. OK, the one. There was one sure way not to fail in that regard, and that was to not even try.

And I really don't think that Hollywood is really all that far off from the truth. I mean, sure, there are pure genre pics that depict boys as mindless pussy hounds, but many of them, including Superbad and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, cling to a more sentimental and indeed perhaps more realistic vision of boys as psychically delicate little things who drink to get their balls rolling.

Here's one from Scientist.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Independence Day

Without even being a Slavist, the polymathic Jane Ellen Harrison coined a term which has stuck in the Russian Literature community. Following on the model of the imperfective aspect shared by all Russian verbs, which describes processes as they transpire, never as complete actions, Harrison bore down on the "imperfective tendency" of the Russian novel, in which nothing ever seems to happen, as opposed to the plot-driven modalities of Dickens, Balzac and their heirs.

When I started in on Richard Ford's Independence Day, Pulitzer-Prize winning and all, I initially fell in love. Here's a late-stage midlife crisis Princeton dweller (a superfluous man, to grab another term from the Russ Lit arsenal), a guy with keen eye for human character, the telling detail, and a penchant for theoretical and introspective ramblings, trying to make peace with where he's at.

But now, some 200 pages into the thing, this imperfective tendency is waying me down: our hero is very much at somewhere, and needs to move the fuck on with it. The fact that he knows it doesn't help much. However short the time frame, the reader demands something, some move forward. I myself can drive around New Jersey and Connecticut, stop at rest stops and motels, observe people. I don't need a novel for that.