Saturday, January 31, 2009

Worst of breed

Mom's disappointed she failed to break the world record,
but promises,"Just wait till next time --
they're cheaper (for me) by the dozen."

"As more details of the mother who gave birth to octuplets come to light, ethicists are debating the moral quandaries involved," the CNN story says. "The woman had six other children before the set of eight, which were only the second set of octuplets recorded in the U.S."
In certain European countries, particularly Italy and Germany, the limit on the number of embryos allowed to be implanted at once is three, said Robert George, professor at Princeton University and member of the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics. George advocated following those countries' examples so that similar situations don't arise and put the lives of mother and fetuses at risk. ...

The woman's mother told the Los Angeles Times that doctors gave the woman the option of selectively reducing the number of embryos, and she refused. As to a "correct" decision at this stage, experts are split. George said that, based on the information available, his personal ethical decision would probably support the woman's choice to carry all the babies to term. ...

The nanny who works with the octuplets' siblings said Friday that the woman "adores her babies" and is "a perfect mom."
A perfect mom. This woman already had six children. She is not married. She "didn't want to get married," her grandmother says. She is unemployed. According to CBS News, she "filed for bankruptcy and abandoned her home less than two years ago."
Yolanda Garcia, 49, of Whittier, said she helped care for Nadya Suleman's [the perfect mom's] autistic son three years ago. "From what I could tell back then, she was pretty happy with herself, saying she liked having kids and she wanted 12 kids in all," Garcia told the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

"She told me that all of her kids were through in vitro, and I said 'Gosh, how can you afford that and go to school at the same time?"' she added. "And she said it's because she got paid for it."

So-called ethicists may be debating the "moral quandaries" of this situation, but I expect they are politically correct liberals who wouldn't dream of speaking out loud about the real moral issue, which isn't a quandary at all.


The real issue is why an obviously emotionally ill woman who is probably also dead stupid, and is in no way capable of supporting a family on her own, should be assisted by the medical establishment to produce yet another litter to be nurtured and raised at public expense.

While many of her fellow citizens are being turfed out of their jobs and homes, society is paying this woman to go on spewing out babies via implanted embryos.


I don't expect Miz Suleman to consider the social implications of her fetus fetish, but I would like to imagine that responsible members of the medical, legislative, and media professions (if there are any remaining responsible practitioners in the last field) might show some concern. But apparently that's too much to expect in Oprahfied America, where everything comes down to "feelings" and "caring," regardless of wider consequences.

So, three cheers for Nadya Suleman, today's perfect mom.


The Times (London) says:
THE single mother of octuplets born in California last week is seeking $2m (£1.37m) from media interviews and commercial sponsorship to help pay the cost of raising the children.

Nadya Suleman, 33, plans a career as a television childcare expert after it emerged last week that she already had six children before giving birth on Monday. She now has 14 below the age of eight. Although still confined to an LA hospital bed, she intends to talk to two influential television hosts this week — media mogul Oprah Winfrey, and Diane Sawyer, who presents Good Morning America.

Her family has told agents she needs cash from deals such as nappy [U.S. = diaper] sponsorship — she will get through 250 a week in the next few months — and the agents will gauge public reaction to her story.

Miz Suleman -- and contrary to my earlier phrase, "her fellow citizens," it is not clear whether she is a U.S. citizen, or among our booming population of invited refugees, or even in the country legally -- describes herself as a “professional student” living off education grants and parental money.

Angela Suleman said her daughter was advised to terminate some of the embryos in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy for the sake of her health, but she refused because she did not know how to make such a life-or-death decision.
I'm loving it, honestly. I'll take my laughs where I can get them. This country is beyond parody, if not hope. A ne'er-do-well sponger and "professional student," who didn't know how to make a "life-or-death decision" about her own pregnancy of alien embryos, plans a career as a television childcare expert. And the media are only too happy to make her into an instant celebrity, if not expert.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mexico: At war with us, at war with itself


You may be used to the idea by now, if it's possible to get used to such things, of Mexico playing the United States for a sucker by sending its frustrated, angry, and hopeless excess population over the border to form a rapidly growing underclass whose remittances help prop up Mexico's wretched economy; and that it violates U.S. sovereignty and encourages dreams of reconquista.

But worse -- far worse -- could be coming as Mexico continues its descent into an anarcho-gangster state.
Mexico has always been a square-wheeled country, with an extreme social class divide between its large mestizo population and its mainly Spanish-descended ruling class, its typically Latin flexibility concerning the rule of law, and its culture of bribery and corruption.

How many revolutions has it had? I've lost count, but it doesn't matter, because none have brought any lasting good. To some extent, in the past, its dysfunctional government and economy have been softened at the local level by a relatively benign climate, social and family networks, an easygoing way of life -- many Mexicans who don't wear uniforms are friendly and gracious -- and, in recent years, a modest economic boom based on natural resources, especially oil.


But the place looks to be coming seriously unwound, in ways that Americans may find it hard to grasp. They'd better start looking at the truth, for their own self-protection.

Here's some truth.

Kidnapping is a growth industry. But that's only a subdivision of the criminality, combined with the blood-soaked rivalry of drug gangs, that is turning the country into a North American Lebanon or Balkans.

According to Stratfor (requires registration), "Violence related to the drug trade is rampant in Mexico, where gunmen are every bit as brutal as the death squads in Iraq." But nobody, gangster or civilian, is safe. The list of events for six days, Stratfor reports, includes:

Jan. 19
A police officer in Tijuana, Baja California state, was wounded when he was shot multiple times by gunmen traveling in a vehicle with California license plates. At least 16 organized crime-related homicides were reported in Chihuahua state, including the fatal shooting of a police commander outside Ciudad Juarez.

Jan. 20
Police in Santa Isabel, Chihuahua state, found the bodies of six unidentified individuals with gunshot wounds. Authorities believe the victims were killed elsewhere. Police in Nogales, Sonora state, found three underground tunnels under construction, which were believed to be intended for use by drug traffickers. Three severed heads were found inside a cooler in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state. A decapitated body was found a short distance away. Authorities believe one of the heads may belong to a police officer who had been kidnapped several days before. A police officer in Loreto, Zacatecas state, died when he was shot multiple times in a firefight with a group of gunmen. The husband of the mayor of Tiquicheo, Michoacan state, was wounded when he was shot at least 12 times by a group of gunmen.

Jan. 21
The mayor of Huehuetla, Hidalgo state, confirmed that he had fired all of the town’s 25 police officers. It is unclear why he fired the officers. A textile salesman in Moroleon, Guanajuato state, was shot to death when he resisted an apparent kidnapping attempt.

Jan. 22
Authorities in Durango, Durango state, reported the death of one man and his 3-year-old son during a grenade attack on their home.

Jan. 23
The well-known owner of a supermarket chain was killed when he was shot once in the chest in Tijuana, Baja California state, in what authorities described as an attempted carjacking. A federal agent died in Oaxaca, Oaxaca state, when he was shot multiple times by gunmen in a truck and on a motorcycle. At least 17 people were killed over a 24-hour period in Chihuahua state, including eight in the state capital Chihuahua.

Jan. 25 Mexican army forces arrived in Villanueva, Zacatecas state, and disarmed the city’s approximately 50 police officers as they assumed public safety authority in the town. The military deployment appears to have been prompted by a series of protests in the city by residents expressing concern over an increase in kidnappings in the area.

Another Stratfor article says:

There comes a moment when the imbalance in resources reverses the relationship between government and cartels. Government officials, seeing the futility of resistance, effectively become tools of the cartels. Since there are multiple cartels, the area of competition ceases to be solely the border towns, shifting to the corridors of power in Mexico City. Government officials begin giving their primary loyalty not to the government but to one of the cartels. The government thus becomes both an arena for competition among the cartels and an instrument used by one cartel against another. That is the prescription for what is called a “failed state” — a state that no longer can function as a state. …

It is important to point out that we are not speaking here of corruption, which exists in all governments everywhere. Instead, we are talking about a systematic breakdown of the state, in which government is not simply influenced by criminals, but becomes an instrument of criminals — either simply an arena for battling among groups or under the control of a particular group. The state no longer can carry out its primary function of imposing peace, and it becomes helpless, or itself a direct perpetrator of crime.
Meanwhile, the country's economic crutch, oil, is collapsing.


Aside from humanitarian reasons, should we care? Of course. All this isn't happening on the moon, or on the other side of the globe. It's next door, along a 2,000-mile border that, as far as three U.S. presidents (counting Obama) have been concerned, is no barrier to migration from the south. If you think the Mexican Invasion is a bother now -- and, of course, it is -- try to imagine what it will be like in a few years if Mexico fully enters into a death spiral.

What to do? The political left in the U.S., as well as much of the business establishment, will demand that we (a) buy off trouble by sending foreign aid, and (b) take in tens of millions of Mexican refugees on top of the bumper crop of illegals and anchor-baby families already here.

(A) is impossible. Money can repair damage from an earthquake or provide temporary relief from a disaster; it can't create a functional society where one does not exist because the local history, political structure, and values aren't there. Mexico needs a revolution, not necessarily a violent one, but a top-to-bottom remake. There is no other way. Aid money will just find its way into the pockets of one crook or another.

(B) would be incredibly stupid, a form of U.S. suicide. There would be no end to it. We would simply inherit Mexico's devastation,
become Mexico for practical purposes. Mexico is a diseased organism. We have no miracle drug to inject into it. Sometimes diseases can be overcome through the body's own defenses and self-healing system, and we can wish our neighbor well and encourage it to find its way to health. But infectious diseases have to be quarantined.

We need to defend our border, one of the limited number of powers the Constitution specifically assigns to the federal government.
Unfortunately, we have a federal government that asserts its power in all sorts of areas that are none of its business, while ignoring this clear responsibility. It needs to be reminded. We need to do the reminding.

Sunday, January 25, 2009



This is the newest member of your blogger's family, back when he joined the household several months ago at the tender age of about six weeks.

It's no exaggeration to say that having a kitten in the house introduces a new dimension into one's life, even more than living with a grown cat. Perhaps it's like the experience of a new baby; I wouldn't know.


A kitten is a vision of what we imagine we might be like as pure souls, without being weighed down by cares and knowledge of life's dangers. Matisse demonstrates this at almost every moment. He is absolutely without fear. I don't know about the circumstances of his birth and nursing; we acquired him from an animal shelter where there is reason to think he was well taken care of. The first time I held him, tiny thing, he purred.

It's fascinating to watch how he is infinitely curious. Every object, every sound, commands his full attention -- at least, for a moment, till it's on to the next wonder. A person who has been blind from birth, and then gains sight through some advanced modern medical procedure, must look at the world this way. To see a kitten explore its environment is to get an inkling of what it would be like to wake up on the Day of Creation.


Matisse considers every surface a fit landing site for leaping onto, every opening an invitation to crawl inside. Never, it seems, having felt pain or reaping an unpleasant consequence from any act, he cannot imagine that Nature is there for anything other than his interest and enjoyment.

Is it better not to know of all life's potential suffering? Perhaps for a cat, an indoor cat like Matisse, who will always have a sheltered environment and be away from danger if I have anything to say about it. (Indirectly, I like to think keeping Matisse protected indoors is also doing a favor to whatever birds or other animals his instinctive, uncomprehending savagery could victimize.)

Matisse, more recently

But -- assuming it were possible -- would such a life cushioned from all vulnerability, spared from sorrow and hurt, be good for members of our own species? Our fantasies would say yes.


According to Buddhist legend or history (take your pick), the Buddha began life as a prince, growing up carefree, knowing nothing of the ills of flesh and mind. When he did discover human suffering, it so shocked him that he could no longer live as a prince: he chose to undergo privation, danger, and wandering far from safety, for the sole purpose of understanding the meaning of suffering and the way out of it, for the perfection that no other animal than an enlightened human can know.

The Buddha, too, became fearless. Not through ignorance, but through knowledge of Truth.

I think kittens are here to be kittens. And we are here to be Buddhas.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Warning! You are committing excess heat!

Heat crime scene

I've more or less given up adding to Reflecting Light's stockpile of "Britain self-destructs" postings. No more evidence is needed that what Lawrence Auster calls the Dead Island is run by and for loony Marxist-minded control freaks with a sadistic bent, determined to ruin the lives of all remaining non-criminal citizens who retain their full complement of marbles. Once in a while, though, it may be useful to select (more or less randomly) some typical bit of harassment by public service wasps whose mission is to buzz around until the sanity of their victims gives way like a dam in a 100-year flood. This is what the nanny state is all about, and what leftists believe is the highest form of government.

You know, of course, that the U.K.'s miserable inhabitants can be fined if their trash bins are not exactly comme il faut. That has nothing to do with genuine nuisances like littering, mind you, but such offenses as not separating items out correctly. Well, here's a new entry in the Nag the Populace Competition, per the invaluable Daily Mail:
Town hall chiefs are sending out an army heat detector vans to take thermal pictures of homes and then confront owners with evidence that they are wasting energy. Tens of thousands of homes have been photographed at night over the last few months using cameras which reveal where heat is escaping from windows, doors and roofs. Council bosses hope the images will shock householders into plugging up gaps in draughty windows and doors, and persuade them to insulate their homes.

The company behind the taxypayer funded Heatseekers scheme hopes to survey every home in the country in the next few years.

Actually, it's not (yet) a crime in the U.K. for your house to shed heat, but you can be sure of getting a snide notice from the cutely named Heatseekers, and you'll probably go on a list of individualist reactionaries to undergo special scrutiny in the future.

Two or three weeks after the van has passed down a street, householders get a copy of the thermal image and a letter explaining how they could save money on their bills. Some also get a visit from a door to door consultant, giving more advice.
"Consultant"? "Advice"? That's called selling where I come from. So in other words, these local government councils have a palsy-walsy agreement with a private company to go around checking up on people's homes and then hit them for insulation business — with the program funded by taxpayers' money.

This is far from the worst outrage British people have to put up with from their masters at every level of government, from Whitehall down to the bobby on the beat who's always alert to catch any "incitement to racial hatred" (i.e., complaining about the forced ethnic remaking of their country). But it shows just how thoroughly government influence and control seeps into every crevice of people's daily lives. For their own good, of course.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Bank euthanasia?

Is there any remedy for the plight of the banks swimming in sewage of their own making other than forcing them into bankruptcy? Karl Denninger believes nothing less will work.
There is exactly one way to resolve this problem - the banks must be "crammed down" through forcible reorganization, and we must stop bailing them out and handing them money.

We cannot recapitalize them through taxpayer donations, for through that path we only delay the inevitable. We do not have the ability to "manufacture" or "borrow" the three to five trillion dollars it would take to cover those losses - a full fifty percent increase in our federal debt, on which we would pay hundreds of billions of dollars a year - forever - being a permanent drag on GDP. Such a path will only lead to more insolvency as the crimp on GDP will inevitably lead to more job losses, more credit losses and more malaise, ultimately resulting in the very collapse that the proponents of this path claim to be trying to avoid.

The math demands that we take bold action. We must force a cramdown of debt to equity, which will wipe out all of the existing shareholders, including those holding preferreds while converting the bondholders into new equity holders, pushing down the capital structure however far is necessary in order to return the firm to solvency.

To the objection that it's unfair to the shareholders to have their investment wiped out because of mismanagement by the institutions and the government, Denninger says that (a) these companies literally are bankrupt, on a life-support system that must pump unthinkable amounts of public money into them just to keep them comatose; and (b) when you buy stock in a company, you are making a bet — a bet you can lose. That's the nature of the market.

His prescription is unorthodox, pretty radical. Well, the chap who's just climbed to the top of the greasy pole, in Disraeli's phrase, promised us change and it can hardly be denied we need some, however much we may disagree about exactly what. Unfortunately, it looks like President Obama's economic team can scarcely visualize whirled peas, much less back off and rethink the situation. Their new idea is to take the old idea of pouring money into a broken vessel and raise it to new heights.

Incidentally, Denninger quotes an article in The Telegraph headlined "Gordon Brown brings Britain to the edge of bankruptcy." (The British banking system may be even closer to complete collapse or nationalization than ours.) A choice snippet:

They don't know what they're doing, do they? With every step taken by the Government as it tries frantically to prop up the British banking system, this central truth becomes ever more obvious.

Yesterday marked a new low for all involved, even by the standards of this crisis. Britons woke to news of the enormity of the fresh horrors in store. Despite all the sophistry and outdated boom-era terminology from experts, I think a far greater number of people than is imagined grasp at root what is happening here. The country stands on the precipice. We are at risk of utter humiliation, of London becoming a Reykjavik on Thames and Britain going under.

Politics has a role in this, of course — The Telegraph being a Tory-supporting paper and opponent of the Labour government. Still, for all the British press's decadent obsession with fashions and celebrities, you have to admire the traces — like this — of old-fashioned bracing journalistic invective. Can you imagine any of the empty-calorie American dailies publishing such a crushing rebuke to one of our politicians?


Monday, January 19, 2009

The miracle worker

Hail to the Chief!
Oh, sorry, must have copied the wrong poster.

Hail to the Chief!

A few lines from the media as The Messiah enters Jerusalington:

New York Times:

Much has been made of Mr. Obama’s eloquence — his ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire. But his appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading have not only endowed him with a rare ability to communicate his ideas to millions of Americans while contextualizing complex ideas about race and religion, they have also shaped his sense of who he is and his apprehension of the world.

Mr. Obama’s first book, “Dreams From My Father” (which surely stands as the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president), suggests that throughout his life he has turned to books as a way of acquiring insights and information from others — as a means of breaking out of the bubble of self-hood and, more recently, the bubble of power and fame.
The cable-news networks launched inauguration coverage at 10 a.m. on Saturday, setting the table for half a week of theater and ceremony, and also hoping to set the tone for half a year of programming. "This event helps build the next six months," MSNBC exec Phil Griffin told Variety last week.
The Observer:
President 'has four years to save Earth'
New Zealand Herald-News:
From all parts of America, the Obama pilgrims have been on the move to witness his inauguration on Wednesday. ... Obama is having something of a Diana affect on stately DC. The man's pictures are everywhere, a radio station has renamed itself Obama FM. The Newseum drew a lot of visitors today to a showcase of special sections and front pages on Obama in US newspapers.
Los Angeles Times:
The inauguration of Barack Obama, the first African American president, could be one for the ages, political analysts say. ... On Tuesday morning, a record crowd numbering perhaps in the millions is expected to spill across the National Mall as Obama takes his oath on the west steps of the Capitol. Later, at 10 official balls, there will be dancing.

But first there will be joyful weeping, lots of it. And plenty of self-congratulation.

After all, we Americans love to amaze ourselves -- and show the world how amazing we are. What could be more amazing than watching Barack Hussein Obama, our first African American president, swear to faithfully execute his office while resting his hand on the compact Bible used by Abraham Lincoln, who hastened the end of slavery?

"When Obama puts his hand on Lincoln's Bible and swears the same oath that Lincoln swore in an age when full equal opportunity didn't exist, that has to be considered a transcendent historical and emotional moment for the country," said historian Harold Holzer, who co-chairs the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, which commemorates the 200th anniversary of the 16th president's birth in 1809.

Perhaps it's true: any American child can grow up to be president. It isn't necessary to accomplish anything. He doesn't even have to be willing, or able, to prove that he was born in the United States. All he needs is big-money globalist backing, sponsorship by a corrupt state political machine, a mellifluous voice, vague slogans, and promises for the redemption of his nation upon his election through a stimulus package -- dole money for the masses and pork barrel projects for the loyal -- on a scale hitherto undreamed of.


July 15, 2009, New Clog, Pennsylvania (Distress Press) -- When Leila Pook dropped a couple of slices of Wonder Bread into her toaster on Inauguration Day in honor of Barack Obama ("It wasn't 11 a.m. yet, so I thought it was a little early for a gin-and-tonic toast"), little did she realize that the result would be a miracle, one of the first of the Obama reign.

"You could have knocked me down with a feather when I saw His image pop out," Ms. Pook says.

But she quickly pulled herself together and called her church, synagogue, and mosque, all of which quickly sent representatives to verify the astonishing event. Since then, however, Ms. Pook -- who lives in a manufactured home in the Green Dream Mobile Home Park -- has had occasional moments when her momentous discovery seemed like something of a trial. When the news was reported, it took less than 24 hours for thousands of the faithful to queue up for a look at the Image.

"They were all very respectful, even the TV news teams from countries I'd never heard of," she acknowledges. "But I could have used a rest."

Ms. Pook has not charged anyone for viewing the Miracle Toast -- "That would be kind of sackrilitigious, wouldn't it?" she asks -- but her agent, the first of many to arrive on scene, is negotiating TV, film, and book rights.


Friday, January 16, 2009

Economy crash lands in river; Congress pumps in money to keep it afloat

"$43 billion for you. $16 billion for you.
$60 billion for you — Not enough?
Okay, here's $78 billion … "

$350 billion: Bye-bye; write when you get work. Another $350 billion: Well, that didn't do much, let's try it again. Oh, hello, Bank of America. Bet you're glad we bailed you out so you could buy Merrill Lynch, smart move on your part … excuse me? Merrill lost you $15.31 last quarter? Well, you might have to tip the waiter a little less generously next time — what? $15.31 billion down the plumbing? Oh, I see. Look, here's a $20 billion Band-Aid. What else are friends for, B of A?

My country 'tis of thee, you voted for change, and here it comes. Meet Barack Obama's economic team, bursting with new ideas. How about this — a stimulus package! To the tune of $825 billion! Something for everyone, including disconnected youth, and a little more for others.

This isn't throwing money at the problem. You have Barack's word for it. What do you mean, where's all that dough coming from? Debt, of course! It's the American way. Who's lending us the money by buying our Treasury bonds? You don't want to ask that.


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

TV Armageddon

Boxtop crisis: Women, minorities hardest hit

"Turmoil over TV switch grows," headlines the Washington Post, bringing you the latest on this imminent disaster.

In case you're having trouble keeping in mind all the varieties of turmoil presently unraveling the national fabric, this has to do with — God save us! — coupons. Of which the Great Federal Mother hasn't enough for its children.

If you haven't yet heard about this, brace yourself. Should a physician or an EMS team be standing by your side at the ready, so much the better.
Plans to become a digital nation are in disarray just five weeks before television stations are supposed to shut off analog broadcasts. Consumers do not have quick access to coupons to purchase converter boxes, Congress is toying with postponing the switch, and now a possible way to distribute more coupons may no longer be plausible.
On Feb. 17, all full-powered television stations are planning to shut off their analog signals and move to all-digital broadcasts. That means older analog TV sets will need a converter box, which costs $50 to $80, to receive over-the-air signals. Consumers with digital TV sets or subscriptions to cable or satellite service will not lose programming. A $1.34 billion federal program to distribute $40 coupons to offset the cost of the converter boxes has reached its funding limit, and officials say the 1.7 million people on the waiting list may not receive the coupons by the transition date.
Job kiss-offs left and right, a $10 trillion deficit, and the near collapse of the economic system are making you nervous? Friend, those are just warm-ups to the main event. The Joad family and their relations all over the country could find themselves without coupons to help defray the cost of digital TV converters needed to watch their soap operas and reality shows.

This is the human face of catastrophe. Should Congress not resolve the coupon shortage in time, thousands of Dorothea Lange wannabe photographers will be criss-crossing the country, photographing the lined, wan, hopeless faces of the financially challenged, a blank screen and wailing children in the background.

Cue camera two. Go to two. Okay, that's enough sarcasm for one day, although there's plenty more where that came from. But really.

What does this say about Obama Nation? That there is a class of terminally passive mopes so dependent on their TV that public funds must be used to soften the blow of paying for a converter box? That we send out TV coupons like the processed cheese distributed by welfare agencies? That King Obama's team wants "stimulus package" dollars spent for this humanitarian relief aid? That this occupies our Congressmen and Senators?

"Give me TV or give me … " No, there's no need to finish that sentence. It's already been written.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

USA "smoking hole" crash site spotted

Missing businessman 'faked his own death in plane crash'
after divorce and financial troubles
Daily Mail, January 13

Feb. 15, 2009 (Distress Press) — Searchers looking for the wreckage of the United States, missing since last Tuesday, believe they have located the crash site deep in the Honduras jungle.

"We were able to identify a few scraps of economy in ruined condition," said Commander Wilfred Plenum. "There were some mortgages scattered around the site as well."

The country disappeared from world radar screens following a "Mayday" call from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. "We are running out of fuel, please tell the subcontractors everywhere to print more ASAP," he reportedly said.

There was no sign of jobs at the impact site, Commander Plenum said. "When that baby went in, the stimulus rate was so high that it left nothing but a Great Depression."

All Treasury debt has been cancelled, there being no country left to back it with its full faith and credit.

World leaders expressed their commiseration guardedly. "Rum luck," said a communiqué from the British Foreign Office. "They had a few good innings, the Yanks did." European Union President Diderot Smorgasbord said, "Just shows what a failure of central planning can do."

Chinese Minister Run-Run Chow declared, "Most unfortunate, but I want to reassure our people that all McDonald's in the People's Republic remain open for business."

Mexican President-elect George W. Bush said, "The whole of the former space called the U.S. that rightfully belongs to Mexico is now open for colonization by
el pueblo whose family values don't stop at the Rio Grande. This is a great day for reconquista!"


Thursday, January 08, 2009

The suicide of a four-times billionaire

Dennis Mangan links to a news report about the suicide of 74-year-old German investor Adolf Merckle, previously accounted by Forbes to have a net worth of around $9.2 billion, whose losses in the stock market were capped by his taking a bath on an ill-timed shorting of Volkswagen.

Dennis estimates that Merckle was probably down to $4 billion to $5 billion when he packed up.

Even if he had set out to spend like no one has ever spent before, Merckle would likely have sailed through the rest of his days with fewer financial worries than about 5,999,999,900 other members of his species currently inhabiting the planet. Would that not have offered him enough consolation to carry on with the experiment in living that we are all part of?


Dennis says, "
Somehow it doesn't seem that losing so much money that you might be kicked out of the Forbes 400 is a good reason to kill yourself. I do think that it illustrates investors' known aversion to losses. Normally, losses make twice the impact on investors as do profits." He also speculates that Merckle's age might have been a factor in his deciding it was time to close the book.

Feeling a sharp pain in the region of the bank statement is bad for anyone's morale, but I doubt that a few billion dollars disappearing into the aether is really what drove the gentleman to Selbst-mord. For many years now, money in itself has probably been almost meaningless to him, something taken for granted.

His departure is a reminder of something we tend to forget, or not realize, when we think about money. When you acquire lots of it, you almost automatically enter a world whose customs, values, and social world are defined by the way you made the money.


If you get rich by operating a successful chain of dry cleaning operations, your life will be centered around dry cleaning economics, management, and technology; your acquaintances will be mostly dry cleaning operation owners or suppliers; if you go to a convention, it will be a convention of dry cleaning store owners. If you make your dosh as a fashion designer, you will not know many spacecraft engineers or history professors, and you will be expected to dress like a fashionista whenever you appear in public.

Even if your genes are worth millions, your social circle will almost certainly include a lot of trust funders and and your calendar will be full of charity events.

For Merckle, and most high-end investors, the money is beside the point. It's just a way of keeping score. Among his cronies, the prestige is in making money, not having it. A shrewd investment move that pays off big time means you're an all-star player. Losing big, no matter how much is left to cushion the fall, means you're a dunce. Four billion bucks to your name and you can't hold your head up in public.


While I don't know anything about his personal life, it is unlikely that his friends, dining companions, wife or lover were quick to console Merckle by reminding him that he could still enjoy great art, music, literature, and other cultural pursuits to his heart's content.

And there is the age factor. At 74, any intelligent person — and it has to be assumed that Merckle was bright, at least in one dimension of intelligence — knows that, as the saying goes, you can't take it with you.

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
— Andrew Marvell

The life of the mind, the inner felicities, true love, perhaps even the winds of Spirit may be more easily accessible to those not burdened with great wealth.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

"Ahmed … "


"Would you check that GPS again? Are you sure this is the road to Gaza City?"

Seriously, though. Is the Gaza invasion just another rerun of the same old movie, or does Israel actually have a comprehensive strategy this time?

Nowhere on earth is geopolitics more confused and confusing than in the Middle East. For one thing, the rest of the world has placed its bets — mostly not in Israel's favor — so any local "solution" resonates all over and threatens to spill over.

The Israelis have their backs to the wall. They're damned if they do, damned if they don't. Putting up with rockets lobbed over the border from Gaza by Hamas fanatics — from the Gaza strip that Israel gave away, hauling tens of thousands of its own citizens out by force — makes it look like a pushover. And while the number of Israelis killed by Hamas rockets hasn't been that great, parts of the tiny country have been living under a Sword of Damocles. An Israeli government that allows its own citizens to be terrorized without trying to protect them loses all its moral legitimacy.

Yet sending in the IDF and the air force sets off the tripwire of so-called world opinion. Lovingly photographed and videotaped dead babies and women screaming in pain are grist for the anti-Israel BBC and Muslim-owned media and, to a lesser extent, the rest of the international news services. Disproportionate response. Civilian casualties by the carload. Stop the violence. Peace now.

But a peace that doesn't change the ante-bellum situation isn't a true peace, just a time out until the next round. Which is why it has to be hoped that Israel's political and military leaders have not just a goal in mind — goals are easy to gin up — but a clearly thought-out strategy for achieving it, plus various contingency plans. To put it another way, there has to be a clearly defined definition of victory (because war is so terrible that victory is the only justification for entering into it) and a clearly defined metric for determining if the action is proceeding toward victory.

Whacking Hamas, if such can be accomplished, will give Israel some breathing room and help dispel the aura of vulnerability that has clung to it since the Lebanon debacle three years ago. But it doesn't solve the question of what on earth to do with the Palestinian people. Palestine is not a nation in any real sense, just a stewpot of tribal rivalries worked out through violence and corruption. Even if Hamas is cut off at the knees, its rival Fatah is moderate only by comparison, and it's impossible to imagine the Palestinian people giving up their hatred of Israel that has been boiling away for generations and will almost surely carry on for generations.

Ideally, the Gaza strip should be made part of Egypt and the West Bank part of Jordan — at least then the Palestinians would be under the jurisdiction of real states, and Israel could subject those states to the usual mixture of negotiations, influence, and threats that nations use in dealing with one another. But why would either Egypt or Jordan want the sore paw of a Palestinian-populated territory?

I understand why Israel believes it must take the military option. I hope it knows not only why, but how, and for what end.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

London scenes

Trajan's column, sculpture cast court, V&A

Some of my experiences in London this past week are recirculating through my head, like a song that keeps returning. I set down here a few notes for those who are planning a visit or who are interested in London.

The Victoria and Albert

After spending the morning at the Byzantium exhibit (described in the previous entry) I hopped on the Tube and alighted at South Kensington. After lunch at an Indian restaurant I remembered from a previous trip -- Indian food in central London is generally of a high standard -- I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, known as the "V&A," or as the world's attic. The latter description is not too far-fetched. It is filled with no end of arts and crafts, like a gigantic house owned by the most obsessive, long-lived collector imaginable.

If there is some sort of handiwork you fancy -- silver, glassware, costumes, German medieval and Renaissance wood carving, name it -- you're in for a peak experience at the V&A, but don't forget to bring emergency oxygen. By the time you have looked on the products in your field of interest, from century after century, in display case after case, room after room, you may find your head spinning, your knees week, your feet groaning, and be ready to plead for a stop to it.

I first headed, as planned, to the sculpture cast courts. They contain a collection of casts made in the 19th century of famous and not-so-famous sculptures from throughout history. Other than not being made of the original materials, they are actual-size accurate models that you can study at your leisure, many of them more closely than you could the real items. Trajan's column from Rome, an amazing pictorial record of the Emperor's military campaigns carved in low relief, can hardly be seen in situ because it is, understandably, fenced off to protect it; but the model in the V&A is bang in front of you. Not only that, but the installers sawed it in half so the middle part is nearer to eye level.

Minbar, a sort of Muslim pulpit,
a Cairo mosque. Jameel Gallery

The newest room at the museum is the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, added with much acclaim in 2001. It would be a cheap shot to suggest that the Jameel Gallery is a symptom of the Islamization of Britain. The world of Islam has produced marvelous art and craftsmanship, and the V&A's new gallery offers examples that are well worth getting to know.

The intricate geometric designs, the richly patterned carpets, the elaborately decorated Korans -- fabulous stuff. And has there ever been a more beautiful form of writing than the old Arabic script in the illuminated manuscripts on view here?


The British Museum

You want to see the Parthenon sculptures, of course. I have a couple of times before, but this was the first time I felt that I really appreciated them.

Heavily damaged, missing some of their surviving pieces (which are in Greece), and out of context, the sculptures are not necessarily easy to warm to. They consist of three different elements: metopes, from the roof, which are low relief carvings of scenes of fighting between centaurs and Lapiths (a mythical race); the frieze, a continuous scene of a procession, which ran all around the outside of the temple; and the pediment sculptures.

The metopes are technically skilled but limited in variety; not especially compelling. The frieze is much more interesting, but hard to comprehend. Because of the need to display them facing into a room, when they were originally facing out from the building, their aspect is reversed. Besides that, instead of running continuously around, they are placed on two walls opposite one another. But even damaged, and with pieces missing, the frieze contains graceful carving and communicative details.

The remains of the sculptures from the east pediment and the west pediment face each other on opposite sides of the hall. Again, they would have originally faced in opposite directions, but here that's not much of a problem. The east pediment sculptures are the greatest glory of the whole group, and even in their broken state convey a moving sense of the highest ideals of the people of the Athenian city-state.

The other rooms devoted to classical artifacts are first-class too. I was delighted to be able, once again, to look on the justly celebrated Portland Vase from ancient Rome -- the most beautiful of its kind I've ever seen.

The museum is generally horribly crowded. Get there when it opens to have a few precious moments to look at its wonders in relative tranquility.

Victoria Hamilton

Twelfth Night, with Derek Jacobi and Victoria Hamilton

I had read "Shakespeare's" Twelfth Night, but never seen it performed, even on television. (The quotes around "Shakespeare" are because I am one of those nutters who are convinced that the actor-manager from Stratford had at most a small hand in writing the plays published under his name.) It does not strike me as one of the author's better efforts, but seeing it played in a West End theater almost made me change my mind. Almost.

The U.K. is going downhill fast in many ways, but in acting it's enjoying a Golden Age, has been for some years. Why this should be so in a culture that is otherwise moribund is an interesting question, one to which I have no answer except perhaps that the English have always been avid theatergoers and there is a solid tradition that is maintained in schools like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Anyway, you could probably cast 500 plays
simultaneously with excellent actors from the country's major cities.

Needless to say, Derek Jacobi was a treat as Malvolio. I'd never seen him on stage before, and never in a semi-comic role, which he pulled off with great
élan. Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins are probably the greatest all-around actors since Olivier, and it's only because neither has ever had as much glamorous appeal as Olivier that they don't have the same worshipful following.

I was just as keen to see Victoria Hamilton playing Viola. She is not well known in the United States, although much respected in British theatrical circles -- well, she would be, to be cast alongside Jacobi, wouldn't she? Hamilton provided the only light and humanity as Cordelia in Richard Eyre's otherwise nearly unwatchable King Lear for TV, and was also outstanding playing her namesake in the historical soap opera Victoria and Albert. I was not disappointed. She offered comic aplomb and touching lovesickness in this Twelfth Night. The rest of the cast was mostly excellent, although I thought Indira Varma (who played Titus Pullo's ill-fated wife in the HBO Rome) was a bit too coy and superficial as Olivia.

Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne

The National Gallery

Before and after Twelfth Night, I was able to spend a little time in the National Gallery (fortunately only a five-minute walk from the theater). This gallery of paintings is in every respect worthy of the great nation that Britain once was, and one would like to think, might someday be again.

I began in the Dutch section where I was reacquainted with "old friends" by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Metsu, Teniers, De Hoogh, and Jacob van Ruisdael. The latter is my favorite landscape painter of all time, and I usually have his paintings to myself, because he is anything but a crowd pleaser. But those swelling, metallic clouds -- the somber shadowed countryside with a spotlit patch of sunlight -- the liquid silver streams ... these chilly views of Holland are sad, contemplative, Zen-like in their perfect stillness, catching eternity in every branch and leaf.

After the play, I returned to the gallery to those geniuses of the Italian late Renaissance, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, all astonishing colorists in their individual ways. No matter how many times I see it (I guess this was the fourth time), Titian's
Bacchus and Ariadne blows my mind. But I made it a point to absorb some of the master's other, less spectacular pictures, which were also compelling my admiration ...

When it was announced that the gallery would shortly be closing, at 6 p.m. A disappointment because the museum normally stays open until 9 on Wednesdays, but it being New Year's Eve ...

I used the last few minutes to try to impress on my mind one Tintoretto that I really wanted to "keep" -- but I find now that I cannot recall it, even its name. More time, more time, please.

But that's London. There is always so much more, just around the corner. You can't quite grasp its essence, it is too big, too varied, elusive. You leave impressed beyond words, but London is not yours, will never be yours, will only allow you glimpses of its own past magnificence that lingers in places, and the treasures it holds from every civilization since humans began making things that would last longer than their individual lives.

It is older than you in your present incarnation and will not yield all its secrets. So this city that began as Londinium, for the Romans who braved the back of the northern wind, bids you to return to know still more of it, but not enough, not ever enough.


Friday, January 02, 2009

Flying to Byzantium

Incense burner in the shape of a church,
gilded silver, 12th century

When I arrived in London for a brief post-Christmas holiday, I learned that the Royal Academy was presenting a special exhibition of the art of Byzantium (modestly renamed Constantinople by the emperor Constantine), which has become synonymous with the Eastern Roman Empire that survived a thousand years after Rome itself fell off the edge of history. The exhibit went on my short list of things to see, and after a night's recovery from the degradation of economy class air travel, I headed straight to the historic Academy building in Piccadilly.

The half dozen or so rooms where the objects are displayed have been sensitively lit -- very subdued overhead lighting, only the art itself clearly visible. This creates an aura of mystery in keeping with the other-worldly spirit of the works, and although the space was crowded, visitors seemed to catch the mood and mostly spoke in near whispers.

The subjects of the pictorial art are familiar: they would become central to the painting and sculpture of the European middle ages. But this is Christian iconography with a difference. The Eastern love of ornament in rich colors, precious metals, and jewels dazzles the eye. No puritanical simplicity here.

Ikon of Archangel Michael

The spectacular elements in the religious art are intended to convey through the senses the transcendent beauty of a greater Reality than we normally know in our earthly lives. Gold was the closest they could come to suggesting Heaven's radiance.

But it's hard to doubt that the people of this Middle Eastern Rome loved brilliant materials for their own sake. The jewelry and faded remnants of costumes that make up part of the show accord very well with the mosaic portraits that have survived of those magnificent show-offs like the emperor Justinian and his empress Theodora (6th century).

In its more prosperous days -- the civilization had its ups and downs, of course -- Byzantium could well afford its flamboyance. Justinian didn't do things by halves in filling his territory with wonders of art and architecture. Will Durant writes:
He began now one of the most ambitious building programs in history: fortresses, palaces, monasteries, churches, porticoes, and gates rose throughout the Empire. In Constantinople he rebuilt the Senate House in white marble, and the Baths of Zeuxippus in polychrome marble; raised a marble portico and promenade in the Augusteum; and brought fresh water to the city in a new aqueduct that rivaled Italy's best. He made his own palace the acme of splendor and luxury: its floors and walls were made of marble; its ceilings recounted in mosaic brilliance the triumphs of his reign, and showed the senators "in festal mood, bestowing upon the Emperor honors almost divine." And across the Bosporus, near Chalcedon, he built, as a summer residence for Theodora and her court, the palatial villa of Herion, equipped with its own harbor, forum, church, and baths.
Most of the large-scale artistic and architectural achievements of Byzantium have vanished or are in ruins (although the great cathedral of St. Sophia survives, as a mosque). But the collection at the Royal Academy includes some flabbergasting examples of craftsmanship.

Several pictures are made in a technique called micro-mosaic, which I had never even heard of. Mosaics are decorations or illustrations made entirely of fragments of colored stones, glass, and jewels; for those meant to adorn walls, the constituent bits (tesserae) are usually about thumbnail size. But the micro-mosaics are pieced together with tesserae almost as tiny as sewing stitches. The finished pieces are like cloth woven entirely of jewels.

Illuminated manuscript on parchment,
12th century

I don't know what it's doing there, but the Byzantium exhibit includes one of those portraits from North Africa in the heyday of the original Roman Empire that were painted on the coffins of the deceased. They are particularly fascinating because they are, as far as I know, the only surviving paintings of that era meant to represent what specific people actually looked like. The dry air of the region is said to have preserved the wood and paint that would long since have decayed elsewhere.

Roman portrait on cover of
wooden mummy case, A.D. 55-70

These paintings, especially of the women, tend to look startlingly modern. As far as what is pictured of the lady above, she would not have been out of place as a spectator in the Royal Academy exhibit.

For all its longevity, Byzantium eventually weakened, for the usual reasons -- unstable politics, religious upheavals (it went through its own period of iconoclasm), and wars that drained its treasury and its best genes. Constantinople was even trashed by its fellow Christians in the fourth Crusade. The West was always suspicious of Byzantium and dithered about sending aid in times of greatest danger, including the last, when Constantinople was besieged by the Ottoman Turks. In 1453, this last descendant of Rome fell to Islam. Sic transit gloria mundi. (I don't know the Greek equivalent, but it would be more appropriate, because the Byzantines were not long in dropping the Latin which few of them could speak well and adopting Greek as the language of their empire.)

Inevitably, but appropriately, the explanatory signage in the exhibition rooms at the Royal Academy quotes from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium":

... I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.