Sunday, January 30, 2011

The high life


One of the oddest neglected fields in sociology and psychology is the effects of living in high rise buildings. It's possible some studies have been done on the subject, but I've never read of any.

As the world's population surges alarmingly, an ever-larger proportion of it lives in multi-story hives. That holds true in large cities everywhere; the few that have held onto their historic centers, like Paris and Rome, have simply put the high rises in suburbs. Nor is it only in megalopolises that high rise residences flourish. Ritzy seaside enclaves boast towers for living too, so developers can sell as many sea views as possible.

High rise living was almost unknown until the recent past. Ancient Rome and Ostia had apartment buildings (insulae), limited to four or five stories height. They were notoriously shoddy and constantly falling down. Only the poor in rough neighborhoods like the Subura lived in them. After the fall of Rome, living on top of and beneath other people stopped for 1,500 years, partly because the technology and engineering skills weren't available, partly because land was plentiful. The poor lived in appalling conditions, but they lived in their own space -- "a poor thing, but mine own."


Apartment buildings began to make a comeback in late 19th century Paris and London, but even they were not much taller than those of the Romans. It had to wait for the invention of the elevator and steel frame construction for real skyscrapers, and eventually high rise dwellings, to dominate the urban landscape. So there have really been only three or four generations in which lots of people lived well above ground level.

Well, so what? Aren't high rise apartments and condos great? If the altitude of your pad is great enough -- and the most prestigious units, or "penthouses," are at the very top -- you get a view for miles and miles. It might be a dreary landscape of other tall buildings, freeways, and malls, but at night even that can become a magical panorama of lights. Heck, even supposed ecological visionaries like James Howard Kunstler love the kind of high-density housing that high rises permit, so people will be able to multiply their numbers at will and still not take up more suburban space. Plus, if they are city office workers, they can live near their offices and not commute by car. I don't know why Kunstler doesn't pursue his logic all the way and advocate living quarters attached to offices in skyscrapers. It would be terribly efficient. Terribly.


Anyway, it seems to me that there is a cultural and emotional gap between living in a single house with at least a bit of turf around it you can call your own and being one of hundreds on dozens of floors. Why would anyone want to be surrounded left, right, above, and below by others? Especially with the poor sound insulation of most modern high rise residential construction?

Yet many do. You can buy rooms in the sky on the 30th floor for millions of dollars in places like New York. Are we creating a new breed of people with different values from those of almost all previous eras?

Manhattan, where practically all residences are in high rises (except for Gracie Mansion, the mayor's house -- if dwelling height is so wonderful, why doesn't the mayor live at the top?), serves as an instructive example. Manhattanites are different from those of us who prefer houses, and while there are surely lots of reasons, spending their home as well as working lives packed vertically is a major one.


High rises turn people into mass man, the end goal of all forms of collectivism. My observation is that New Yorkers have become psychologically attached to density. They are unlike people who become uncomfortable in crowds. They will happily queue up around the block to get into a popular show or fashionable restaurant: being in a huge throng reassures them that they are in the right place.

Still, even New York -- because of its history (time to create some sort of manners for living with others constantly around them), residual wealth, and culture -- generally manages to blend a degree of civilization into the mix. That almost certainly isn't true of new high rise cities that have sprung up in the past 30 years, containing millions of people. What does the high rise life do to the heads of occupants who have gone in their own lives from peasantry to urban slabs in China, India, Brazil, Nairobi? 

In fact, while the people in Cairo who are currently tearing up their city undoubtedly have politics in their forebrains, is it possible that behind at least some of the instability is the shock of finding themselves uprooted and suspended in forests of concrete? Steve Sailer touches on Egypt's overpopulation issue, and as usual lots of short-sighted critics insist that the population growth party can go on forever, just like economists insisted that the great borrow-and-spend bubble could.


Maybe we are evolving into human ant colonies where individual space is a luxury for the very rich, and even many of them don't care about it. At least for the rest of my lifetime, it will be possible to live in a house if my luck holds. It would be nice if future generations had the same opportunity.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

What next? U.S. to invade Egypt?

"U.S. warns Cairo: Halt crackdown or we halt aid."

"Riots in Egypt: President Obama must choose between Hosni Mubarak and protesters' cause."

"Axelrod: President Obama has 'on several occasions directly confronted' Mubarak on human rights for the past 2 years 'to get ahead of this.' "

"Obama admonishes Egypt's Mubarak on protests."

Flipping hell. Could we, for once, mind our own business?


I don't know if the rioters in Cairo are revolutionary champions of freedom trying to overthrow a typically corrupt Middle Eastern regime, or a bunch of Islamic fundamentalist yobs. Neither does Barack Kenyatta, and neither does our leftist State Department. Why does our government assume that it always must take sides in every crisis, guaranteeing that one (or, more likely, both sides) will acquire another reason to loathe the U.S.?

What if our official response was: "We trust everybody will cool their jets and work things out. It's particularly important from our standpoint that the Egyptian antiquities in the Cairo Museum be safeguarded."

What if our official response was nothing?


I propose that the following words be chiseled in marble at the entrances to the Oval Office and the State Department:


It would remind our elected and unelected doofi that most of the time we can do no good, but easily do harm.

Kenyatta has chosen the latter course (surprised?). 
The Barack Obama administration has decided to lift a ban preventing Muslim Scholar Professor Tariq Ramadan from entering the United States. Ramadan, an Egyptian currently living in Switzerland, is a leading member of Europe’s Muslim Brotherhood branch and the grandson of the movement’s founder Hassan al-Banna. The Muslim Brotherhood is the parent organization for Hamas and some of the groups that recently merged into al-Qaeda, including Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

So, our answer to an unpopular Egyptian regime is to roll out the welcome mat for a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the fount of much militant Islam in the world today.

Heaven help us.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Eppur, si muove

Eppur, si muove. Nevertheless, it does move.

That, supposedly, is what Galileo said (very quietly, one supposes) after the Inquisition forced him under threat of torture to recant his belief that the earth moves around the sun.

Eventually, of course, the scientific method was completely accepted and saw off any theological objections to its findings. We can all be thankful for that, not only because of the many life-improving inventions that were developed as a result of scientific research, but because it corrected a mis-application of metaphysics. The phenomena of this world, as perceived by the senses and tested through experiment, yield their secrets to science, not metaphysics and certainly not to religious dogma.


But there is a class of borderline phenomena between the physical and the metaphysical, namely, what we call psychic or paranormal. Physical and (in many cases) measurable effects are produced, but there seems no physical cause or explanation.

You would think that science, with its claim to open-minded investigation and testing of hypotheses, would be intrigued by the paranormal. Not so. With a few honorable exceptions, scientists don't want to know. Don't want to admit there is anything to know. Orthodox science occupies the low ground that the Inquisition held in Galileo's time.


Recently it was announced that a paper on extrasensory perception, including precognition -- knowledge of what hasn't happened yet -- would be published in the peer-reviewed scientific Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. As usual, that set the cat among the pigeons.
Prof Bem, of Cornell University, New York, said the results of nine experiments he had carried out on students over the past decade suggested humans could accurately predict random events.
His peer-reviewed work was described as "pure craziness" and "an embarrassment for the entire field" by scientists who allege it has serious flaws and that ESP is a myth.
Articles of this sort in the mainstream media are hard for the educated reader to make any sense out of, since they focus on the conclusions of the study while providing scant information about the experimental protocols, including how the findings were tested for statistical significance. For that matter, even the alleged "serious flaws" aren't specified. All you get is hot air, a controversy, which is what interests journalists. And of course most newspapers can't resist illustrating the story with a corny picture of a gypsy fortune teller, although the overwhelming majority of psychics, people who experience paranormal phenomena, and psychical researchers have nothing in common with so-called fortune tellers.

Maybe this research did have methodological flaws, although for many skeptics, doing the research in the first place was the essential flaw.

Pieces like The Telegraph's, usually written by generalist reporters, give the impression that no scientific research has ever previously been conducted into the paranormal. A hundred and thirty years of serious psychical research might as well never have been undertaken, since few reporters or conventional scientists will waste their time reading about it.

The evidence for psychical phenomena (sometimes called psi) is overwhelming, but partly for that very reason, doesn't lend itself to easy summation. To get the true picture, you have to read not just a handful of accounts of experiments or descriptions of spontaneous experiences, but -- as with any other field of inquiry -- explore the subject in some depth. That takes time. And, say the perma-skeptics, what intelligent person would waste time on such obvious nonsense? Thus continues the perfect circle of ignorance.


Occasionally someone asks me to recommend a single book that would convince an open-minded scientist of the reality of psi. I'm not sure that any one book can do such a thing, because even a book is limited in the number of examples it can offer, and any particular instance is open to theoretical objection, no matter how far-fetched. It's the sheer quantity of solid evidence that is the clincher.

For the scientist who wants to get a first, rational look at psychical research, I would recommend you push the boat off with Dean Radin's The Conscious Universe. Radin is a scientist and his tone is objective.

But, short of an overall change in the materialist assumptions of modern life, I don't expect psychical research to become any more respectable than it is now. Only some individuals will explore its findings to expand their understanding of the nature of life. To admit there are levels of consciousness and existence that are beyond the reach of the ordinary senses (while they can at times affect normal consciousness and the physical world) is just too uncomfortable a leap for most.

Eppur, si muove.


I have just learned from Guy Lyon Playfair that he recently wrote a review with a similar theme. It can be found here.


Friday, January 21, 2011

A cloud no bigger than a man's mouth

I see a cloud coming up out of the sea,
no bigger than a man's hand
— I Kings 18:44

It's a modern-day guilt ritual: a public figure says something a little colorful that a thin-skinned member of a protected class claims is racistsexisthomophobicislamophobichateful. The thought criminal quickly recants: "I am deeply sorry if I offended anyone. It was utterly unintentional. Wash me clean. Please, put a dunce cap on me, a rope around my neck, hang a sign on me, parade me in the streets, jeer me."

Steve Cohen (D-People's Republic of Congress), seated:
"I didn't intend to offend anyone."

The most recent apologia comes from Steve Cohen, a Democrat congressman, for his remark in the House chamber:
They say it's a government takeover of health care, a big lie just like Goebbels. You say it enough, you repeat the lie, you repeat the lie, and eventually, people believe it. The Germans said enough about the Jews and the people believed it, and you had the Holocaust.

The Germans said enough about the Jews and people believed it--believed it and you have the Holocaust. We heard on this floor, government takeover of health care. Politifact said the biggest lie of 2010 was a government takeover of health care because there is no government takeover.
For the first time I can remember, a man of the Left has had to dance the shimmy. And for a genuine outrage (not a slip of the tongue, or a joke that didn't go over). This is no occasion for conservative triumphalism, but it might be significant. A vicious comparison of Obamacare opponents to Hitler's assistant ranter, which (I hope) would draw groans from a high school debate audience, has actually gotten a big government booster in hot water.

Steve, we don't need to crown you with a dunce cap. You've done that for yourself.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Simon says

John Simon, who has written engagingly about theater, film, literature, and music for decades, now has his own blog: Uncensored John Simon.

Simon's criticism — especially of theater — has frequently generated strong reactions, pro and con. He is extremely knowledgeable about his subjects, writes a stylish and often witty prose, and tends to be conservative (in his tastes; I don't know anything about his politics). Simon's critical judgments can be severe — if he was censored by his publishers, it doesn't show — and no other modern critic has punctured inflated reputations and taken down avant-garde pretension with as much gusto.

The hard rap on John Simon is that he is excessively nasty as a reviewer, treating work that doesn't satisfy him as virtually a crime. He has also set some teeth on edge by including in his denunciations put-downs of an actor's appearance. Not costumes or make-up, but bodies and features. He once wrote of Shelley Winters playing a role after she'd gained a lot of weight — I'm quoting from memory, but I think this is pretty close — "she is a disaster, or perhaps considering her girth, it would be more correct to call her a disaster area."

He is pretty old now, in his mid-80s. We will see on his blog if he has mellowed (I suspect not). His erudition will still be in evidence, as will his mastery of language. (Simon was raised in Belgrade and came to the United States when he was 15. Like the Pole Joseph Conrad, he learned to write elegantly in an acquired language.)

Here he is, musing in his blog on New Year's Day the consolations of a long life:
… First there is work.  There is this blog with which to reach out to the others who can be talked to, befriended, and lose some of their otherness.  …

Then there are books, books that can be read or reread and offer consolation. When I was very young, I thrilled to Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer; an autographed copy sits on my shelf.  The print is devilishly fine, but I have my trusty glasses.  It is a novel about young people growing up—but perhaps old people, too, can still do some growing up. …

Essays are always good; they challenge the mind into thinking rather than complaining. …

And there is music—my huge collection of classical CDs.  How about a Samuel Barber concerto, to set me dreaming?  Or some Janacek?  His string quartets?  Or an opera?  There is wonderful tamed wildness in his music that can break out into colorful indignation or subside into jocular intimacy in a trice.  Or for amusement, but amusement tinged with exquisite sentimentality, a little Poulenc?  The ravishing Sextet, or a ballet, or any of the sonatas? …

Finally there is bed, sleep and dreams.  This is where you can truly surprise yourself if you can transport your dream scenarios into your waking memory.  The other night I had a long dream that, if I could have fully captured it and written it down, would have—damn it—made a terrific short story.  But forgetting also has its rewards: dreams are like a collection of stories in a book especially written for you, and you want to get on to the next one.  I say “for you” rather than “by you” because they are written by another self astonishingly lodged inside you.  Close as a twin yet different.  
John Simon over the years has taught me to appreciate things that otherwise might have been lost on me and probably made me a better reviewer when I was in that line. At times I, like many others, found him too negative or cruel. Still, I appreciate that he is passionate about the humanities, and much rarer, he understands what he is passionate about and why. He is a warrior on behalf of Western culture, and takes slovenly thought, tastelessness, and lack of ability in those who call themselves artists very personally. If he is freer than before to speak his mind, he's earned it.


Sunday, January 16, 2011

She is Shelby Lynne


Years ago when I heard Shelby Lynne's first popular album, I Am Shelby Lynne, it didn't make much impression on me. I am impressed by her recent Tears, Lies, and Alibis.

It goes under the heading of "country" because of the singer/songwriter's background and some of the arrangements, but this is about as far as you can get from from the debased commercial Nashville sound. Tears is personal without being "confessional," relatively spare in its instrumentation. Acoustic guitar (I'm not sure if she is the player) predominates in most songs, and several in their bleak power remind me of the kind of music I heard in folk music clubs long ago.

Lynne produced the album herself, seems to have known exactly what she wanted, and got it. The Allmusic site says some of the tracks were laid down with her own band and augmented by studio musicians in Nashville. That she was serious about sound quality is confirmed by the fact that it was mastered by the great audio engineer Doug Sax, who among many other accomplishments co-founded  Sheffield Lab, perhaps the first audiophile label.

I'll reiterate that this is dark, way removed from the honky-tonk frivolity and teary bathos of most of today's plastic country product. The third track, "Like a Fool," sets the tone while drawing you to its depths of love and need.

Tears, Lies, and Alibis is an album that matters.

That brings me to another recent release, Allison Moorer's Crows. She has six previous albums in her discography, none of which I've heard, but Crows (on which she wrote most of the songs) is accomplished and winning. 

Like the Shelby Lynne album, Crows has a tenuous connection with the country scene, being neither glitzy nor neo-traditionalist. The tracks are generally moody, owing just enough to pop music to enable them slide down easily. Guitar lines are fairly evenly divided between acoustic and electric.

Whereas Lynne's voice is finely polished steel, Moorer's is liquid gold that can boil over when the theme calls for it. The intelligent lyrics are a further attraction.


I love everything about this album, including the photo of Moorer as a contemporary Scarlett O'Hara. 

By the way, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer are sisters. Musical talent and strikingly good looks run in this family.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Middle class disappearing … in multi-culti Toronto

Toronto's Globe and Mail said it.
Toronto is becoming a city of stark economic extremes as its middle class is hollowed out and replaced by a bipolar city of the rich and poor – one whose lines are drawn neighbourhood by neighbourhood. 

New numbers indicate a 35-year trend toward economic polarization is growing more pronounced: The country’s economic engine, which has long claimed to be one of the most diverse cities in the world, is increasingly comprised of downtown-centred high-income residents – most living near subway lines – and a concentration of low-income families in less dense, service- and transit-starved inner suburbs. 
 Who are these low-income families?
Those in the lowest-income areas are also more likely to be immigrants and visible minorities.
… If the trend continues … Toronto in 2025 will have a concentration of high-earners along the lakefront and the city’s subway lines surrounded by low-income areas – with almost nothing in between.
Haven't Canada's bien-pensants been telling us in season and out that diversity is the key to the country's strength? That its comatose white population is a real drag, and only the cultural and economic enrichment of immigration from the world's far corners (plus the Eskimos, or whatever their politically correct name is) offers salvation?
That continuing trend risks creating pockets of the city that become “no-go zones,” said Carol Wilding, president of the Toronto Board of Trade. She added the information isn’t surprising, but it “starts to put more of a crisis tone” on the need for the city to fix a growing problem that’s as economic as it is social. 

“It does make it more challenging for businesses to want to get in there to invest in those neighbourhoods,” she said. “It’s a greater call to action. … We aren’t moving fast enough.”
Ms. Wilding, why do you say the situation isn't surprising? It's not surprising to you that all those immigrants are getting behind in their re-vitalizing of Canada? Do you mean Toronto isn't welcoming enough, with its TV programs in 30 languages?

The city should be moving faster toward what? Oh, yes, "for the city to fix a growing problem that's as economic as it is social." How should the city fix the problem? Create Section 8 vouchers for the immigrants and visible minorities to live in the lakeshore high-rises? Bus the kids of the high-income residents out to the low-income, service- and transit-starved 'burbs?

To people like Ms. Wilding — and I'm sure she represents all respectable opinion in Toronto — the problems never have anything to do with the immigrants themselves. It's those beastly high earners. It's middle class folks who don't want to live in the inner city with all the Third Worlders they assure you are the very essence of what Canada stands for.
It also seems to contradict Toronto’s most prized mottos – “Diversity our strength” and “The city that works.” Neither of those rings true any more: Toronto’s diversity is becoming balkanized, turning it into a weakness where it could otherwise act to the city’s advantage. The creation of economically polarized pockets of high- and low-income residents means Toronto simply won’t “work” as a municipal entity
If diversity has become a disadvantage, a balkanizing force (as it invariably does, in Toronto or anywhere), how could it "otherwise act to the city's advantage"? Faced with the reality of the effects of mass immigration, the multi-cultural cheerleaders can only fall back on a hard-line insistence that it should work! It shouldn't be a problem!
In Toronto, the idea of neighbourhood-specific poverty came to the fore several years ago. Among city-sponsored and independent community initiatives, it spawned a “priority neighbourhoods” program, in which the city targeted several particularly troubled areas. Despite the flood of money and services, however, things aren’t improving on a broader scale. 
So it is in the fantasy land of multi-culturalism, ever and ever, world without end. Despite government initiatives and programs "targeting" under-served visible minorities, pasting money over the problems, things don't improve. They keep going the way they're going. When you can't acknowledge the truth, that a middle-class society and population replacement from tribal societies are incompatible, then all you can do is weep about "challenges" not being met. And issue yet another call to action, and warn that the action isn't coming fast enough.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

No new posting

Sorry, we're closed.

This is a posting to say that there will be no posting today (unless something changes). I have nothing to say that would be of interest to anyone else, or even me. Thank you.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Gingrich wants states to be able to declare bankruptcy

You and I can declare bankruptcy if we need to. Municipalities can. For some reason, states can't. Newt Gingrich wants federal law to let them in on the game. (Tip of the hat: Zero Hedge.)


As everybody knows by now, the states are strangling on pensions and benefits owed to their employees. Like the bigger Union of which they are components, they have felt immensely generous in the past. They've made golden handshakes standard operating procedure, and are wracked with remorse because they are sunk in the new economic battlefield. 
Mr. Gingrich discussed the proposal in a Nov. 11 speech before the Institute for Policy Innovation, an anti-big-government group based in Lewisville, Texas. According to a transcript of the speech on Mr. Gingrich's website,, he said: 

“I ... hope the House Republicans are going to move a bill in the first month or so of their tenure to create a venue for state bankruptcy, so that states like California and New York and Illinois that think they're going to come to Washington for money can be told, you know, you need to sit down with all your government employee unions and look at their health plans and their pension plans and, frankly, if they don't want to change, our recommendation is you go into bankruptcy court and let the bankruptcy judge change it, and I would make the federal bankruptcy law prohibit tax increases as part of the solution, so no bankruptcy judge could impose a tax increase on the people of the states.”
That's quite a sentence, 128 words not including whatever was omitted in the ellipsis. I don't think even the late Laurence Olivier could have spoken it without pausing for breath. When I was writing for radio, one of my rules was never to have a sentence longer than you could speak without an intake of air — it sounds terrible when you have to pause in mid-sentence.


Anyway, back to our sheep, as the French say. Our pseudo-conservative, pseudo-intellectual Gingrich wants to give states the nuclear option. Probably many non-government employees would be entirely dry-eyed at the possibility of pod farmers not getting their promised dosh. But hang on.

What happens when the states kneecap their employees and it's all jolly legal? Does Newt actually believe that will be the end of it? Never mind the lawsuits; those take too long to work their way up the great chain of judicial being. No, the jilted beneficiaries will then take their turn at bat, demanding a fat pitch from Congress.

If the states can't cough up those nifty pensions and benefits, why then … it's time for a federal bailout!


What, you say the federal government is broke and no mistake? When did that ever stop a bailout? Hey, China, want to buy some more bonds? No? Be reasonable! You won't sell no more Wal-Mart furniture to the California low riders and plastic toys to the anchor babies if we don't keep the state in business!

I suppose prostitutes in the streets of Washington get busted sometimes. Those in the Capitol, never.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

Senseless acts of verbal violence

Oh, my God. In Tucson, of all places. 

I remember the Safeway where Saturday's shooting happened. It was where I turned on my commute home from the junky commercial Oracle Road onto Ina, beginning a drive across the luxury-territory foothills and downhill to home on the east side. I don't remember ever going in the Safeway, but my wife reminded me that when we were in Tucson again last year she had a prescription filled at a pharmacy next to it.

Several other subjects were in the queue for posting, but this has to take precedence. Why? What can I possibly say that matters? But I can't not say anything, I just can't.

My belief in an afterlife doesn't detract from the horror of this killing and maiming. No one should have to depart this life so abruptly and capriciously, leaving an ocean of grief among relatives and friends.

That said, maybe the only important comment now is to urge that we stop drawing immediate inferences and blame. Maybe the killer was pure and simply a nutter; if he had accomplices, maybe they were too; more will come out in the days ahead. But for heaven's sake, and our country's sake, let's not view this through a political or ideological lens.

Fat chance. Of course it's already in high gear.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik did not ascribe a motive to the shooting but lashed out at what he called a climate of "vitriol that has permeated the political scene and left elected officials facing constant threats.

"And unfortunately Arizona, I think, has become sort of the capital," he said. "We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

He went on to point a finger at the media. "I think it's time as a country that we do a little soul-searching. Because I think it's the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out, from people in the radio business, and some people in the TV business … that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in," Dupnik said.
Referring to the increasing vitriol, he said, "that may be free speech, but it may not be without consequences."
Who loaded the gun? Fox News, of course. Here we go:
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a New Jersey Democrat, blamed the Fox News Channel for today’s shooting spree that left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded and four others slain. He told a local New Jersey paper shortly after the incident, "There's an aura of hate and elected politicians feed it, certain people on Fox News feed it.”

He continued: "I'm sitting here talking to you and my Blackberry's sending alerts that say 'take caution.' Take caution? I'm in the United States of America!"
Prejudice and bigotry. Fox News. Gun culture. The Tea Party. Too-free speech. Talk radio. Immigration restriction. The Evil Eye. Probably before long somebody will claim the murders were down to blogging, and plead that bloggers should have to be licensed.

We will read again and again in the liberal media about the killer's "anti-government messages," overtly or covertly implying that anyone who wants to contract the scope of the federal government is by definition a shooter-in-training.

By the same token, if it turns out that Jared Lee Loughner ever said a good word for Karl Marx, right-wing commenters will load the blame on Marxists.

Come on, people. This is a severely divided country and the last thing we need is to ascribe collective blame for what the media will inevitably describe as a "senseless tragedy" (so unlike sensible tragedies), just before making sense of it by finding its causation in "hate speech" or opposition to open borders. It seems pretty clear the assassin was a sickbag loony, whatever confused political ideas he may have had. We don't need to indict a whole culture or any part of it. Please.


Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Only 3,650 shopping days till the Apocalypse


The financial media are chock full of "Repent, for the end is nigh" warnings. I usually agree with their catalog of economic sins this country, and others, have committed: artificial "wealth" through credit madness at every level from individuals to the government; over-taxation and over-spending; submerging small businesses and entrepreneurs in a La Brea Tar Pit of regulation; conversely, using the people's money to rescue big companies from the consequences of their folly.

No porcine lipstick can conceal the nature of the beast anymore. Don't we all know, even if it's half-consciously, that the economic morass isn't part of the normal business cycle or a common or garden variety recession? That the system has come unglued?


It's mourning in America, with Robert Shiller, Peter Schiff, Martin D. Weiss, James Turk, Robert Prechter, David Wiedemer, Gonzalo Lira, Tyler Durden, Marc Faber, and others I can't remember at the moment assuring us the American economy, if not the world financial nexus, is at death's door. Even in such a crowded field, however, Paul B. Farrell stands out.

Farrell, a regular columnist for MarketWatch, can match the bets of all the other doomsters and raise them. He's a combination of Savonarola, Huey Long, Jesus in the temple with the money changers, Nostradamus, and Karl Marx. I like him, sort of in the way I like Gore Vidal: unhinged but colorfully argumentative, with a dream logic that's persuasive until you finish reading and wake up. It's refreshing to find an economic guru who isn't hedged in every direction and who doesn't seem to have the slightest concern about being thought mental; and once in a while he makes unconventional sense.


His latest opus is a look back from the year 2020 at the magnum collapse, with a new chapter of the debacle each year starting in this one.

2011. Wall Street’s super-rich spend billions to control Washington

Thanks to the conservative takeover of America’s so-called democracy the past three decades, from Reagan to Obama, our activist Supreme Court delivered the coup de grace into America’s psyche in 2010, overturning long-established precedent and giving rich owners of zombie corporations absolute rights of live humans, a decision that would have gotten a failing grade in my constitutional law class at the University of Virginia.
Obama part of the conservative takeover?  Deliver me. Still, after the Supremes' Kelo decision, it's not that far-fetched to imagine the Court "overturning long-established precedent and giving rich owners of zombie corporations absolute rights of live humans." 

Washington now feels called on to rescue big corporations, as though they are humans in need of a hot meal and a brush-up. But corporations lack one important attribute of people. Baron Thurlow, an 18th century English jurist, said: "Did you ever expect a corporation to have a conscience, when it has no soul to be damned and no body to be kicked?" Quite.

2013. Pentagon’s WWIII global commodity wars accelerate for 2020 peak

Back during the Bush II presidency, Fortune analyzed a classified Pentagon report that predicted “climate could change radically and fast. That would be the mother of all national security issues.” Billions more people will increase unrest across the world, creating “massive droughts, turning farmland into dust bowls and forests to ashes.”
No decent Twilight of the Gods scenario is complete without a good helping of climate change. If the Pentagon says so, well, that caps it.

But … 
2014. Global population bubble accelerating, wasting commodities
By now it had become clear that America’s Conspiracy of the Super-Rich was draining trillions from middle-class taxpayers. They see global population growth (exploding more than 100 million annually) not as a drain on scarce resources but only as a way to get richer through their obsession with free-market “globalization.” 
Bull's-eye. In all the wailing about various kinds of bubbles, why does no one ever mention the population bubble (i.e., unsustainable population growth)? If anything, our funeral directors for Western civilization are more likely to complain that folks aren't reproducing enough. Good on Farrell for going out on a limb with a sensible observation that few want to hear.

2017. Middle-class revolution: Buffett’s rich class loses, overthrown

By 2017 it had exploded into a new Civil War as all hell broke loose after the 2016 presidential election. The growing income gap popped Wall Street’s bubble for the third time in the 21st century, the economy collapsed, riots spread against another bailout of too-greedy-to-fail Wall Street banks. A class rebellion ignited. 
As if. We need a right old shake-up for sure, but I can't picture any serious revolution. The fight has been bred out of us. Like the English, we've become a nation of grumblers.


We complain, but when the cost of civil disobedience is an IRS audit or an indictment on one of an endless supply of potential charges — as is frequently pointed out, there are now so many laws and regulations that we can't help violating a few every day — we buckle at the knees. I'm not directing this at you. I accuse myself, because I'm another griper via this blog who won't do anything more radical than joining a demo in Washington with a hundred thousand others.

We do what we can; can't do more. With some common sense, sensible reform, and more good luck than we've earned, maybe we'll muddle through.

Monday, January 03, 2011

True Grit


True Grit has gotten a big hunk o'love from people who watch movies and write about them for a living, and I think it's been much inflated because it comes from the writing and directing team of Ethan and Joel Coen. The Coens have managed to make themselves larger than life in the film-crit world, although they usually leave me unsatisfied (see my take on their No Country for Old Men here).

Nevertheless, I watched True Grit in a real movie theater, rare for me (I much prefer DVDs in my home theater). For one thing, I had the week off from work, so I didn't begrudge the time wasted on previews and ads before the feature. For another, I'm still dead keen on Jeff Bridges, even though I was distressed by his over-the-top characterization in Crazy Heart

Actually, his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit is somewhat along the lines of his cowboy singer in Crazy Heart — aging, dissipated, ornery. He's dialed down the mannerisms somewhat this time along, and the role, which never strays far from cliché, is at least genuinely inhabited. Plus, there are a few of those moments when Jeff Bridges does what Jeff Bridges does and it's hard to imagine them issuing from anyone else. 

Don't ask me to compare this True Grit with the original starring John Wayne, which I've not seen. There's too much comparison shopping among the cognoscenti who review movies anyway. I am writing about the 2010 movie on its own terms.

Of the other actors, the highlight is Hailee Steinfeld, as the 14-year-old Mattie Ross who enlists Rooster in her quest to bring to justice the villain who killed her father. Having a young girl speak every line like a lawyer or orator palls quickly, but Steinfeld is lively while suggesting intelligence and understanding beyond her years. Matt Damon, a Texas Ranger on the make who is an on-and-off companion to Rooster and Mattie in tracking down the killer, was quite unrecognizable as the star of The Bourne Ultimatum and The Bourne Identity, which I guess is an accomplishment. But, getting no help from the Coens's script, he occupies negative space. In contrast, a character actor who plays a defense lawyer in a brief trial scene shows how to make something out of nothing.

I found True Grit reasonably entertaining. Why can't I summon up much enthusiasm for it? My impression is that the Coens didn't bring much ambition to the project, which shows. For every scene that lights up, two or three others slog along routinely. They indulge in some hackneyed shots, like a horse and rider silhouetted against a sundown sky. The exterior shots of Fort Smith, Arkansas, in the 19th century are oddly unconvincing. I gather from the credit roll at the end that they were filmed at the old-west lot near Santa Fe, but since Santa Fe doesn't look like Arkansas, the background had to be re-created with computer graphic imagery. Not very well, though — it resembles the painted backdrop to a sound stage set in a '50s movie.

That kind of symbolizes what bothers me about the Coens: they are "concept" men making Big Idea movies, and can't be bothered with shadings and details.

Incidentally, the print shown at the technically advanced theater where I saw it still had those glitches in the corner of the screen to tell the projectionist to switch projectors at the end of a reel. I thought all theaters now use continuous spools, not multiple reels.