Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Vonnegut Wisdom


Quote of the day:
“Maximize demand, minimize supply and buy the rest from the people who hate us the most.”
--Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network, describing America’s energy policy in today’s New York Times.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.”
--Kurt Vonnegut

Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I am guilty. I do this. I admit it.

This is to be distinguished from mea gulpa, which means “I drink my beer too fast.”

“Everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” This is played out in all kinds of ways.

At our jobs, we try to do just the fun staff--planning, researching, “strategizing”--and farm out the real work to those who work for us. Let the assistant do it. Then the assistant can hire an assistant to do it. Welcome to government work.

If we have to do too much everyday stuff, or if we can’t move up in the organization, we get bored.

At home, we want to continually change things and remodel. When it comes to just taking care of what we have, it’s yawn city.

A fascinating corollary to this is spending weeks and lots of money to fix up a room or a back yard and then only using it a couple hours a month. This boils down to spending more time preparing it and taking care of it than enjoying it.

There may be a direct analogy to the theological cliche “everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.” Then again, maybe they just sound the same.

The more-appropriate theological analogy may be the being/doing comparison in stories such as that of Mary and Martha. Martha couldn’t stop busying herself when Jesus was around, while Mary simply was there.

Something to think about. Or not. Whatever. I’m bored. Time to go mess something up so I can rebuild it.

Video: Mazda Destroying 4,700 Brand-New Cars

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Key Identity: College or Not?


Quote of the day:
“In Pennsylvania, Obama did everything conceivable to win over Clinton’s working-class voters. The effort was a failure. The great uniter failed to unite. In this election, persuasion isn’t important. Social identity is everything. Demography is king.”
--David Brooks, in today’s New York Times

David Brooks’ column today points out a gradual yet profound demographic and cultural shift that’s happened in the U.S. since the 1950s. It’s worth spending a couple minutes reading it, if you haven’t already.

He suggests that the social hierarchy that was present for many generations has given way to an education hierarchy.

Due to the fact that there is now such a large percentage of college graduates, they are forming a sort of tribal cohort and making life decisions accordingly. So are those with no college degree.

While there is little conflict between these groups, there is a certain common worldview that is prevalent among the well-educated, and another among the less-educated, Brooks says.

These two groups supersede anything regional, though they tend to live in separate parts of cities and counties. They are, in effect, distinct tribes.

In the Presidential campaign we endlessly hear about “black and white,” “working class and elites,” “rich and poor,” “urban and rural,” “women and men,” “young and old” and so forth.

It’s very interesting to consider that the real determinant may be “college degree or no college degree.”

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Tax Rebate is in the Mail


Quote of the day:
“[The reality show] ‘The Hills’ isn’t aiming to stimulate or inspire; I think people watch it mostly to figure out why they’re watching it.”
--Nancy Franklin, The New Yorker, April 21

Well, well, well. This week most of us will be getting a cash gift from our government. Isn’t that special?

I’m not about to send ours back, but this is a bit of a lame idea. This tax rebate is based on the premise that we need encouragement to spend money. I don’t know about you, but I have no problem spending money, thank you very much.

I suspect that most Americans also have no such problem. For those who do, or who are congenitally parsimonious, what makes anyone think a sudden cash infusion is going to change them? I don’t get it.

Yes, I know, “economists” say we are strapped, and have no money to spend. After in-depth analysis and discussion, they have concluded that If we just had some money, we would spend it.

We can certainly hope the equation is this easy. But I suspect most of us have gotten past the stage of getting 50 cents from Mom and buying a candy bar with it.

We’ll see.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Young@Heart


Quote of the day:
“If we’ve learned any new rule in the 2008 campaign, it’s this: Once our news culture sets a story in stone, chances are it will crumble. But first it must be recycled louder and louder 24/7, as if sheer repetition will transmute conventional wisdom into reality.”
--Frank Rich, in today’s New York Times

When you’re done reading this, go to your Netflix queue and add “Young@Heart.” Even better, find a theatre showing it and plan to go today or tomorrow. Don’t put it off.

This is the most fun I’ve had at the movies in a long, long time. I was glad to see it in a theatre so I could enjoy others enjoying the film, too.

It’s a documentary about a group of seniors who perform rock music together. I know, it sounds corny with a high potential for condescension and sap.

But there is no condescension or sap, and what corn there is is deliberate and self-aware. This movie is a joy.

There is a variety of singing talent among the members. It is amazing and a hoot to watch a 92-year-old recite “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash with an authentic knowingness. At another moment in the film, as an 80-year-old began to sing the Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” for the first time, Merrie leaned over to me and said “he’s channeling David Byrne!” And he was!

I just used the word “authentic.” “Young@Heart” is so appealingly authentic--we meet these people as they are, and as they discover joy and creativity within themselves. Then they share it with an audience who goes wild and brings the house down.

There is also sadness in the film, and it is treated straightforwardly, without either playing it up or playing it down. It is real and poignant.

The word “poignant” is not in Hollywood dictionaries these days, and this film about defines it.

The other word that perfectly fits this film is “fun.” It was on the screen and in the theatre.

These are funny, real people who love to have fun, and it is the fulfilling purpose for their lives.

Mark your Oscar ballot now. Best Documentary. No one else need apply.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Faithless


Quote of the day:
“I think she wants us to follow her.”
--A response to Lassie on the TV show of the same name.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“I think she’s just whining.”
--A response to Lassie never heard on the TV show.

“Faithless” is directed by Liv Ullman from a script written by Ingmar Bergman. You could call it a Bergman epilogue. The movie is about as close to Bergman as you can get without actually being Bergman. It’s a laugh a minute.

Those Swedes, they’re so much fun.

Most of the time I have a single opinion about a film--it’s either good, ok or lousy. But I have two opinions about “Faithless.”

On the one hand it is a unique, powerful and real emotional journey. The movie’s description says that it’s based on a real incident in Bergman’s life.

The acting is superb, and it is on display in beautifully shot, carefully crafted scenes that are long with no camera movement. As usual with Bergman, the movie has the feel of theatre. Up-close theatre.

This sort of intense and intelligent character study has just about disappeared from American movies, so it’s refreshing to come across a good film that is so single-mindedly about character.

I’ve always liked Bergman. Especially his earlier, funnier films. Just kidding.

I have to admit that I can’t watch “The Seventh Seal” without cracking up over the many parodies of it, and Woody Allen’s allusions to it in his films.

The fact is that Bergman will still be watched and appreciated in 100 years, while every film in theatres this weekend will be a smelly vapor in the ozone layer.

My second opinion about “Faithless” can be summed up as: “Give me a break, Liv.” The movie is way too long at 2 1/2 hours. Bergman’s unique vision could carry a film that long, but Ullman has a problem here.

It’s as if she’s decided one way to give homage to Bergman is to make a 2 1/2 hour film. The story certainly doesn’t demand that length--many things are never explained or even described. Of course, except for the basic outline, the plot is not important here--as it was never important to Bergman.

It is rather about emotional stories, and they are always both unclear and deeply felt. Putting those timeless kinds of stories on the screen was Bergman’s gift, and his enduring magic.

I suggest renting this and watching about the first 90 minutes. Take a break and see if you want to watch the rest. Maybe you will.

Better yet, rent “Wild Strawberries”--a very very fine Bergman film that especially speaks to anyone over 50.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

America's Number One Issue


Quote of the day:
“Ignorance in the United States is not just bliss, it’s widespread. A recent survey of teenagers by the education advocacy group Common Core found that a quarter could not identify Adolf Hitler, a third did not know that the Bill of Rights guaranteed freedom of speech and religion, and fewer than half knew that the Civil War took place between 1850 and 1900.”
--Bob Herbert in yesterday’s New York Times.

Quote of the day no. 2:
“When I compare our high schools with what I see when I’m traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow.”
--Bill Gates

Education is one of our “been there, done that” issues. We hear statements like those of Bill Gates and columnist Bob Herbert and we think, “Yeah, yeah, ok. We’ve heard this before about a gazillion times. I guess we just can’t do anything about it.”

And it seems we really can’t. We just keep getting stuck in the political mud. Significant change in our schools requires both more funding and consensus. Both of these have proved impossible so far.

More funding is impossible because there is nowhere for that funding to come from. There are too many other urgent spending priorities, and raising taxes is politically unpopular.

Consensus is impossible because of long-standing entrenchment of three groups: reform-minded administrators, teachers and activist parents.

The only way any of this will change is if we can free ourselves from the mud in which we are stuck.

What is the mud? It is us. It is our apathy and indifference.

If we were to simply insist on change and take responsibility for it, things would begin to change. There are a number of examples of successful schools that can serve as models.

We can look to them for leadership and help, or we can face the consequences.

Interesting, Unusual Russian Perspective on Democratic Primary

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Oil Highest, Dollar Lowest


Quote of the day:
“ There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man's lawful prey.”
--John Ruskin

I woke up this morning to news that oil is at $119, an all-time high, and that the dollar is at .62 euros, an all-time low.

It sounds like a broken record. Yet what makes this news is the relentlessness of these moves. Oil has been at or around all-time highs for the last four months. The dollar has been at or around all-time lows for more than a year.

There is no sign that either direction will change any time soon. The current surge in the oil price is partly due to a disruption in the supply coming from Nigeria. This is a short-term effect, which means that oil’s price will likely back off a bit after a while.

But the key words in that sentence are “a bit.” As always, there will be choppiness in oil prices. One day the price will be down a few dollars, the next week it will be up a few dollars. Or vice-versa.

But it is untenable to suggest that oil prices are “going back down.” Yes, in the short term, they probably will. The long-term trend, however, is inexorably higher. And eventually MUCH higher, as China’s and India’s economic development continues to accelerate.

Indeed, we are headed for an oil crisis in the coming years. There will come a point when world oil production cannot possibly keep up with both current needs and the needs of millions of new drivers and hundreds of new industrial companies. We don’t know when this crisis will happen, but it will happen.

The dollar will keep sinking as long as the primary direction of interest rates is down. A very weak currency is part of the price we pay to give ourselves cheap credit to buy what we want, and to help prevent businesses from having to scale back.

Everything has a price. Everything has a consequence.

Another Primary Day


Quote of the day:
“ The reason lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place is that the same place isn't there the second time.”
--Willie Tyler

Well, at long, long last, today is the Pennsylvania primary. Watching the news these last few weeks, it sometimes seems as if nothing else is going on nationally.

The voting patterns will be interesting to watch. It’s possible for Barack Obama to pretty much have the nomination sewed up. Most likely, though, we’ll continue to see continuing mini-dramas until election day in November. That’s 6 1/2 months from now. Oh, boy.

I really hope some entertaining things happen, because the issues are getting a little tiresome.

That sounds ridiculous, but I mean it. All three of the candidates have developed positions on just about everything meaningful. Sometimes their proposals are detailed and very insightful. And very necessary.

The tiresomeness comes from incessant repetition, and from efforts to be very certain and increasingly precise in forecasts and calculations. Any level of precision in knowing how much something will cost, or what the effects of any proposal might be, is impossible for any candidate.

Doing this is very difficult for those whose job it is to manage the government. Hearing someone running for President say emphatically that either tax cuts or any program is going to be paid for through cutting “waste” (or “pork-barrel spending”) or some other manipulation of the budget is a stretch at best.

Yet all three candidates are doing this, because it’s what they think we want to hear. Maybe some of us do.

What is very, very clear is that the Iraq war costs something like $200 million a day. And interest on the national debt costs us about $650 million a day. We are much deeper in debt than we were seven years ago.

I’ve heard just one of the candidates talk about this.

But is this trend going to change?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Oh No, I'm Part of a Trend


Quote of the day:
“It's like some vast aerial city with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic baskets full of nutritious snacks.”
--Nicholson Baker, talking about Wikipedia

A funny thing has been happening to me the last few weeks. I have barely read the newspaper.

The daily paper has been an integral part of my life since college, where we were assigned The Washington Post as part of the journalism program. For many years Merrie and I subscribed to four newpapers--The Los Angeles Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Now we’re down to just two--the Southern California ones. Very few days have ever gone by when I haven’t read through at least one paper.

But a while back I began spending my morning newspaper time online, mostly reading from a variety of news sources. The best news sources online tend to be the newspaper sites--many of them are very good indeed.

Like you I’ve been reading for years about the decline of newspapers. The fall in daily circulation accelerated just over the last 12 months. Fewer than 30% of those under 30 read a daily paper.

I never, never imagined myself to be part of this decline. I guess I have always held on to the tradition and romance of print journalism.

I’m not sure I’m jettisoning this tradition just yet. We’ll see. But it sure is fun to travel among newspapers and other sources every morning--and maybe catch up on some other things too.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The New Ed Sullivan Show


Quote of the day:
“During the Nineties, and again in the wake of September 11, 2001, I was struck more than once by a perverse contemporary insistence on not understanding the context of our present dilemmas, at home and abroad; on not listening with greater care to some of the wiser heads of earlier decades; on seeking actively to forget rather than remember, to deny continuity and proclaim novelty on every possible occasion. We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us. Ours, we assert, is a new world; its risks and opportunities are without precedent.”
--Tony Judt, in the May 1 New York Review

In the 1960s, just about all of America gathered around the TV on Sunday nights to watch The Ed Sullivan Show.

In 2008, just about all of America gathers around the TV on Tuesday nights to watch American Idol.

AI is an extraordinary phenomenon. In a fragmented TV universe, it is a mass-audience program, drawing tens of millions of viewers a week and dominating the TV ratings.

In some significant ways, it is very much like the variety programs of TV’s first three decades. It features live and unscripted performances, a host and some regular “guests”--the panel of judges.

The interactions among these people and the contestants is a vital element of the show, as is the ever-present theme of the making of a pop star. Added to this is the weekly drama of who will be voted off the competition. The show is widely talked about among friends and coworkers.

It’s fascinating that it has become America’s weekly gathering place, much as Ed Sullivan was some 40 years ago, and Jack Benny was on radio some 30 years before that.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dualism, Monism


Quote of the day:
“So few members of the public show up to speak on agenda items that decisions often pass on consent...and are never discussed.”
--Reporter Alison St. John, talking about San Diego County Board of Supervisors meetings, at kpbs.org

The first place I started thinking about dualism was in graduate school. It’s too bad it came that late. I think this ought to be taught to kids in elementary school.

Two reasons. First, it’s a simple idea to grasp. Second, this idea underlies how we are usually taught to see the world, so being aware of it is essential to the development of critical thinking and a full spiritual life.

Dualism means the world is divided in two, as in yes/no, up/down, right/left, right/wrong, here/there, good/evil, man/woman, light/dark, alive/dead, fast/slow, begin/end, winner/loser, rich/poor, body/spirit, dude/nondude and so on.

We don’t see dualism. Yet it is implicit and embedded in virtually every culture and family.

It underlies every disagreement, conflict and war. It also underlies continuing and profound ignorance. All we need to do is divide things into the proper categories, and then we don’t have to think anymore.

We think dualistically because it is easy, and because it seems logical. After all, there is either being or nothingness. Right? And some things are right, while others are wrong. Right?

RIGHT?? HELLO! RIGHT???

No, wrong.

Just kidding.

Philosophically speaking, nothingness is inherent in being and vice-versa. That is, there is no being unless there is simultaneous and co-located nothingness. One cannot exist without its self-contained opposite, at the same instant and in the same place.

Same for right and wrong. It doesn’t mean that right and wrong don’t exist. Rather it is about how they exist.

A strong case can be made that the power of what Jesus taught came from his insight into this. Later, Paul may have been the one to “dualize,” especially dividing flesh and spirit and heaven and hell.

All this came up for me because of an article I read that was written by an atheist. Unlike most such articles (and those of fervent or fundamentalist believers), it is not simply an exercise in ridiculing or belittling.

With evangelical religion being so present in the political life of our nation and the world over the last several years, it’s natural that an equally dualistic backlash develops.  It is rare to come across a thoughtful response.

I encourage you to read this for some interesting thoughts on why dualistic, rules-based religion has been so important to so many in our culture.

Monday, April 14, 2008

China is Becoming a Superpower, With Our Help


Quote of the day:
“China was in decline for 300 years and then around 1978 Deng Xiaoping said, ‘OK, let’s find something new.’ He reintroduced entrepreneurship and capitalism to a country that has had a long, long history of both. In China they save and invest more than 35% of their income; in America we save less than 2%. The Chinese work from dawn to dusk. When they come to work, they don’t say, ‘How many holidays do I get?’ They want to live like we do in America and they are willing to work hard, save and invest for the future.”
--James B. Rogers, in today’s Barron’s

Ok. Let’s all have a moment of panic about China.

AAAAAAleadpaintAAAGGGGGGjobsGGGGGHHHHHHbadpetfoodHHHHHHwewon’tbenumberoneHHHHHHtheydon’tspeakEnglishHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

Good. Now that we’re done with that, let’s talk.

There’s been lots of attention over the last week to protests surrounding the Olympic torch route. Fervent Free Tibet supporters have been vocal and sometimes aggressive, not heeding the Dalai Lama’s call to keep the peace.

Simultaneously there have been strong protests against China’s ongoing human-rights abuses.

These protesters make very important points. China certainly does need to heed the wishes of the people of Tibet. And there’s no doubt their human rights record is spotty.

What concerns me is that these two valid issues are simply added to what some see as a growing list of reasons that China is a sinister menace. And while we engage in the latest anti-Chinese hysteria, the real, long-term ramifications of its emergence as an economic superpower are ignored.

Because of their rising power, they are able to buy American debt (that is, dollars). We get worked up about this and then use part of our home-equity loan to go to Best Buy and get a flat-screen TV, made in China. That home-equity loan might also be owned by China.

In other words, we fret and worry about China’s growing ownership of American assets and then we drive to the post office to mail a few to them. We borrow from them to buy their products.

China’s influence and economic power are growing. They will one day have more economic influence than us. Why? Because their population is more than three times ours.

Historically, the majority of China’s population has been agrarian. Now that has changed, and more than half live in urban areas. And as still more and more people get engaged in China’s growing commercial and industrial base, this trend will accelerate.

There’s no need to panic. There is a need to be aware of and to understand.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

They're Back!


Quote of the day:
“I agree with the governor, it's a complete waste of time. For those people against same-sex marriage, all I can say is that they should get a life. I'm too damn busy working, trying to pay my bills, and just survive in this economy to worry about something that in no way affects me.”
--jfawcett1, leaving a comment this morning at signonsandiego.com

A good week, this.

Merrie is feeling good and getting lots of sleep. She had a routine trip to our doctor who confirmed she was doing fine, and recommended more rest.

Also, resident and migratory birds are hanging out here. The trees are louder than usual this time of year. There are mockingbirds nesting nearby, and a bevy of happy finches, sparrows, hummingbirds and doves.

A huge red-shouldered hawk regularly watches over the canyon from a perch just on the other side.

To top it off, the first migratory grosbeaks showed up this morning. Always a big event.

There’s a ground squirrel who appreciates the bird-feeder overflow, and seems to enjoy the sound of German Shepherds barking at him.

Now if we could just have a brief talk with the car-mirror-obsessed starling roosting in our driveway.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Beautiful Day for A Wet Roll in the Dirt


Quote of the day:
“Even the best of friends cannot attend each other's funeral.”
--Kehlog Albran, "The Profit"

The four of us went for a long walk on Fiesta Island at 3 this afternoon. The temperature was about 78 with a bright sun and an ocean breeze. A perfect day.

There were very few people and dogs there. Most folks were at work or engaged in Friday-afternoon responsibilities.

I thought about that a little as I watched Sophie tear into the water and out again, with Sherman herding her back to us. I was glad to be where I was.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

No End in Sight


Quote of the day:
“Online input, offered in real time from legions of customers, is beginning to make traditional focus groups seem old-school.”
--AP, yesterday

Statistic of the day:
Average daily number of insurgent attacks in Iraq:
July 2003: 16
May-July 2007: 161
--Brookings Institution

The news right now is that General Petraeus is saying that we should not remove any troops from Iraq until the fall.

USA Today has published a compelling graphic with both individual information and compiled statistics about the 4,000 soldiers killed in Iraq. I highly recommend it.

At the Washington Nationals’ home opener, President Bush was loudly booed from the stands--and it wasn’t just a few cranky loudmouths. We’re talking thousands of people booing the president of the United States.

I’m a fairly respectful person. I know it’s hard to believe, but I am. If any other president in my lifetime had been booed at a baseball game, I would’ve been embarrassed--and I would consider it disrespectful. No matter how I felt about that president’s policies.

I was not embarrassed when Bush was booed, and I was surprised at myself. I never thought I’d lose respect for a president.

This is not because I disagree with the Iraq war or any other policy. It is rather because of the way this presidency has been conducted.

Specifically, this administration has repeatedly neglected or ignored good, reliable information when making decisions. It’s as if the decision is made first, and then information backing it up is cherry-picked from various sources.

If there weren’t such dangerous and deeply tragic consequences from these decisions, this would be merely ridiculous. But this is beyond arrogant. It is blithely, ignorantly cruel and deadly.

This has now been proven time and again, with many different decisions involving many different people. The case began to be made in 2004 in National Security insider Richard Clarke’s excellent book “Against All Odds,” detailing the flawed and ideological thinking after 9/11 that resulted in the Iraq war.

Since then, there has been a steady stream of former administration, military and CIA officials who have spoken of presenting detailed on-the-ground information about a situation to the president, only to have it ignored--sometimes not even read.

The documentary “No End in Sight” presents this very clearly. The film was not made as an anti-Bush polemic. It made very effort to be fair and objective--efforts that were made difficult by the refusal of several senior administration people to even be interviewed.

It is an excellent documentary, but I do have to pass along a warning. When I watched it, I found myself gradually becoming literally enraged watching highly-experienced intelligence and diplomatic people be cavalierly ignored, with the result being nothing but increased chaos, suffering and death.

That is why, for the first time in my life, I can watch thousands of Americans boo the president at a baseball game and not be embarrassed or ashamed.

Instead, I’m embarrassed and ashamed the rest of the time.

Just Six Weeks Until Memorial Day


Quote of the day:
“Four decades after the murder in Memphis of a friend of the working man—a hero who was always being denounced by the FBI for his choice of secular and socialist friends and colleagues—the national civil rights pulpit is largely occupied by second-rate shakedown artists who hope to franchise ‘race talk’ into a fat living for themselves.”
--Christopher Hitchens, in yesterday’s Slate

It’s time for another burst of work. Spring breaks are done. Memorial Day is six weeks away, and summer another three after that.

Now it’s the old nose to the grindstone, and work hard to find ways to escape to Starbucks or even to that long-delayed dental appointment.

I’m fascinated by the rhythm of the work year--how most everyone seems to be on about the same schedule of work during several periods each year. These are the times when the freeways are really clogged at rush hour, food stores are jammed after five and people are generally tired and cranky. The beach is clear as far as the eye can see.

The most-intense work bursts are several. The worst is mid-September through October, which includes very heavy business travel and conference scheduling in October. It’s relieved by Halloween, which has become a much-more-important holiday over the last ten years. That is followed by gradual “loosening” as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, with the latter bringing on serious partying.

Early January through mid-February is tough. In addition to the grindstone we have to deal with darkness and cold. That’s why we need both Presidents’ Day weekend and Valentine’s Day. After that, there’s a gradual easing until spring break, which continues and accelerates as summer approaches.

In between these work periods there are long-weekend times off or weeklong times when we’re officially at work but the mood is not work. An example is the week between Christmas and New Years. The week before Labor Day also qualifies. In fact, all of summer really qualifies. Think about it--what serious work conferences are held in the summer?

It seems we lurch among three modes: working long hours and like crazy, taking time off and convincing ourselves how deserving we are, and sort-of working while pretending that we are still working long hours and like crazy.

Maybe it would serve all of us better if we could simply integrate work and rest better. But I guess we are too obsessed and self-deluded for that.

It’s the old story of seeing ourselves as much more indispensable than we are.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Why Are Stocks Stronger Now?


Quote of the day:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
--William Butler Yeats

The stock market goes down, the stock market goes up. It’s hard to make sense of it. Many people just give up and don’t worry about it. Others give up and do worry about it.

In reality, there is a bit of logic to the movement of the market.

I guess the clearest part of things is why stocks were down early this year. More and more bad economic news was coming out each day.

But why are they stronger now? There has been no letup in the stream of negative news. Two reasons.

One is the release last week of bad unemployment numbers. This is usually interpreted as an indication we’re much closer to the end of a recession than the beginning. Investors are always trying to see what will be happening in six to nine months. In this case, they looked out and saw the probability of a stronger economy then than now.

The other reason is much more basic, and usually ignored in financial reporting. It’s the Al Pacino/Godfather 3 effect. The money goes out, and it has to come back in.

Realizing this has really helped me over the years. When the stock market goes down--and especially when it goes down sharply--I ask myself where that money is going. Is it permanently going into another kind of investment? In most instances, no.

Instead, the money is put into treasury securities--like this time--or other short-term low-risk low-return investments. In other words, the money is “parked,” waiting to come back in. It may take a few days, a few months, even a year or two, but the money will come back.

Where does the money wind up? It always winds up where investors think they will get the highest return. It doesn’t stay parked.

A lot of money came out of the market and into short-term treasuries over the last three months. Does it makes sense to think that investors are going to be perfectly satisfied watching that money earn 2% or less? Not for long.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

UCLA, UNC, NYET, NYET


Quote of the day:
“To achieve the impossible dream, try going to sleep.”
--Joan Klempner

Tell the truth, Didn’t you think we’d be watching UCLA play North Carolina for the NCAA championship?

Not only were both defeated in the semifinals, but both were soundly defeated. Both Memphis and Kansas ran onto the court ready ready to play, play fast and win.

It’s amazing how both UCLA and North Carolina looked hapless by comparison.

2001: A Space Odyssey


Quote of the day:
“Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”
--Andre Gide

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” one of the most influential, important and controversial movies of all time.

When it came out, there was a huge buzz about the film, and people flocked to it. Many of those people came out of theatres shaking their heads and saying “huh?”

Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” is rightly celebrated for its groundbreaking special effects. But its plot and narrative style are highly unconventional and will always leave a lot of people baffled or bored.

There’s been a ton written on the movie’s possible symbolism and meaning, including in this very long but entertaining exchange. In other places, critics and viewers, while admiring the special effects, have been skeptical about the film itself. It’s been dismissed as ponderous, pretentious and opaque.

I saw “2001” shortly after it was released. I was amazed by the visuals, and blown away by the music. But I had no idea what it was about.

In the 1980s Merrie and I rented the VHS and watched it on our 19-inch RCA TV. We were bored out of our skulls--we turned it off before it was over. We realized much later than the film depends on both the immensity and subtlety of its visuals and its soundtrack. Thus it is impossible to grasp on a small grainy screen with a tinny-sounding speaker.

In truth, “2001” is a great work of art. Think about it. All great works of art are both highly affecting and subject to ongoing interpretation. Rarely do artists explain what their work means, once and for all.

I think it’s clear that the film does contain allusions to both Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and Homer’s “Odyssey.” Kubrick points to the former by using Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as the movie’s theme. As for Homer, “Odyssey” is part of the movie’s title, so that’s not exactly a stretch.

A key to the film is that the dialogue is sparse and banal. That’s because the movie is not about our relationships with each other.

What is “2001” about? I’m not sure anyone can say definitively. Sure, it’s about our relationship with technology. But it’s also about our relationship with everything else.

To me, it is about the scope of human life and development in the context of an incomprehensibly vast universe--a universe so vast that it contains other lives beyond our imaginings.

It’s the hugest theme possible for a movie.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Fromage and the Final Four


Quote of the day 3:
"Our trade deficit has greatly worsened, to the point that our country's 'net worth,' so to speak, is now being transferred abroad at an alarming rate."
--Warren Buffett in 2003 in Fortune

Steve Martin used to have a routine in which he repeated phrases in French, one of them being “omelette du fromage.”

In that vein, what we have this weekend is “quatre du finale.”

America is celebrating the arrival once more of the boys of summer as ice is still melting in the northern reaches and buds just begin to appear on the maple trees. But the sports world’s real story at this moment is college basketball.

For the first time, four number-one seeds are in the final four of the NCAA tournament, and they are good teams indeed. There is pretty fair regional representation--UCLA, University of Kansas, Memphis and University of North Carolina (I think someone in that basketball-embedded state is still pushing the NCAA for a rule that says at least one of its teams makes it each year).

Of these, UCLA, UNC and Memphis are especially fierce--we’re talking intense, driven, high-level basketball. These teams have been something else to watch as they’ve come through the tournament. Not that any of their paths were an uninterrupted breeze. UCLA stumbled twice--once in the opening round. Memphis was given quite a test by Mississippi State.

Kansas is just a bit of a different story. Last weekend, they came close to being knocked out by an excellent and underrated Davidson team (from North Carolina, by the way), and seemed a bit lackluster in the process. Maybe it was just a bad day.

We may have one, two or three games that will be the best in any sport this year.

Wait, when’s the game on?

Uncle Buck


Quote of the day:
“First, we must learn to count to one.”  

--Martin Luther King

Quote of the day no. 2:
"The international evidence on health care costs is overwhelming: the United States has the most privatized system, with the most market competition — and it also has by far the highest health care costs in the world."
--Paul Krugman in today's New York Times

After a morning in the hospital and an afternoon resettling at home, Merrie and I decided to watch a comedy.

I’m a sucker for the John Hughes movies of the 1980s. Some may find these films dated and lame, but to me they hold up well and are surprisingly funny and refreshingly good-natured compared to so many comedies today.

We’d never seen “Uncle Buck,” so that’s what we put in last night. Neither of us were expecting much, and we were delightfully surprised.

Yes, in many ways the movie is somewhat silly and predictable. But John Candy is terrific, and you get to see MacCauly Caulkin in his first major role.

Merrie and I love simple slapstick, and there is a big dose of that, as well as a generous helping of well-done situational goofiness.

In short, we had a fun time. It was a perfect movie after a tough day.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Video: Object of the Week

video

Good News


Merrie was admitted to the hospital overnight. She is in the direct observation unit, which is meant for patients likely to stay 24 hours or less.

This morning we got very good news. She had a cardio stress test and came through it just fine. Results show that her shortness of breath is not being caused by any deterioration in her heart function.

As I say, very, very good news. And so there's a 99% chance she’ll be coming home today.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Back to the ER


Merrie is in the emergency room for the third time in four days. It’s always a somewhat frightening rather than fun experience, of course. But to the extent anyone can adjust to such things, I suppose Merrie and I have.

She’s been a bit short of breath, a symptom that triggers every doctor and nurse she calls to say go to the emergency room. Fortunately, on all three visits they have immediately determined that there is no heart attack. Which means she is sent to the waiting room to wait for a bed. If you’ve been to an emergency room, you know this can take hours.

Interesting that on the show “ER” the waiting room appears very small and off to the side, and people are bursting into the ER all the time with urgent problems. The reality is much more mundane. Sit down and wait. Look around at everyone else and wonder what’s wrong with them. And wait. And try not to watch Montel blaring from the TV on the wall.

As always, it’s a step at a time, We’ll see what today brings and then we’ll deal with tomorrow.