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Friday, January 30, 2009

Our greatest ex-President

Jimmy Carter may not be our greatest living President, but he has certainly conducted his post-Presidential years the most admirably.

Unfortunately, the same qualities which make him so honorable now -- his decency, his almost Puritanical rectitude, perhaps his lack of alpha male drive for dominance -- made him pretty much a failure as a President. But Carter is an example of how Presidents should conduct themselves after leaving the White House.

Carter never had that arm-twisting ability, perhaps best personified by LBJ, which would have allowed him to bend Congress to his will. He simply had neither the instincts nor the ability to intimidate and bully. He also never stooped to making himself beholden to various interest groups in order to get their support. So all he could do was lead by example, never a very effective mode of leadership.

He also had the misfortune to preside during an oil crisis and a period of stagflation. Every President gets either too much credit or blame for the economy, which seems to have a life -- and a mind -- of its own. In Carter's case, what he got was blame.

Carter's essential decency might be best illustrated by that 1976 Playboy interview in which he confessed to having lusted in his heart for women (other than his wife), as if this were a shameful sin. (Please, name another politician -- or anyone -- who beats himself up for this.) Carter was widely mocked at the time, and his confession did seem silly. But it was also telling.

The only thing Carter has visibly lusted for since leaving office was the Nobel Peace Prize, which he finally got in 2002. He certainly hasn't lusted for wealth. He has devoted himself instead to good works, from building homes for Habitat for Humanity to monitoring elections abroad to eradicating disease in the Third World to trying to bring about peace in the Middle East. (There are still homeless and sick people, questionable elections, and an unstable Mideast, but not for lack of effort on Carter's part.)

Carter's behavior presents a very pleasing contrast to many of the other recent ex-Presidents.

Nixon was relatively dignified in his post-presidency (as opposed to his Presidency). He cashed in with a book deal and then fell from public view for a while. As time went on, Watergate faded and the public seemed to focus more on his keen intelligence (he was certainly one of our smarter Presidents) and foreign policy expertise.

Gerald Ford was the first to turn the ex-Presidency into a business, serving on up to eight corporate boards at a time. It was said that when he was asked for favors by people who had done him favors early in his career, he refused unless they paid him.

Reagan limited his cashing in to a book deal and a well-paid speech in Japan, but he also developed Alzheimer's soon after leaving office, so he didn't have time to fully exploit his financial opportunities. He certainly hadn't shown any aversion to commercial pitchdom while an actor.

Bush the Elder got the usual book deal, then joined the Carlyle Group, one of those semi-shady finance operations which hires ex-politicians partly for their connections and partly for their prestige. But he at least has had the decency to mostly stay out of the limelight.

Bill Clinton outdid even Ford in his desire for money, selling himself to anybody who would pay, continuing a tradition he had established early in his career (with Stephens and Tyson Chicken). Worse, he seems to have decided that his circle of friends be pretty much restricted to billionaires.

Bush the Younger hasn't been out of office long enough to establish a track record, but one senses that demand for his services will, by Presidential standards, be minimal. (Is he capable of writing a book?) Anyway, he was enough of a whore for business interests during his Presidency.

Throughout it all, Jimmy Carter has been a shining example of decency and honesty and dignity. It's almost enough to restore your faith in politicians.

Not quite, but almost.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Just an out of date plug for the best teen comedy of all time:

Most teen comedies are constructed so as to make us feel nostalgic for the teen years we never in fact had: full of nonstop laughs, endless partying, exciting adventures, witty friends, and plenty of sex -- with the appropriate upbeat mood music in the background. (Think Porky's, or the American Pie series.) Many of the actors in those movies, especially the females, look like models.

Superbad was all about not having the slick comebacks, not being popular, not being able to beat up the bully, and not getting laid. And the characters looked like people you actually knew in high school.

It's this realism that makes it so funny. McLovin, the personification of teenage awkwardness, may be the funniest character ever.

The only false note in the movie was the injection of those two SNL-style wild and crazy cops who let McLovin shoot their guns, help wreck their car, etc. They're part of the plot, which gradually moves toward making McLovin a hero in the eyes of his classmates. But this denouement could have come about without those ridiculous scenes.

Judd Apatow's other films have been good, but not as good. His biggest strength is his ability to show people acting pathetically. But as he graduated from high school comedies, Apatow's characters became more successful and thus harder to identify with. In Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the protagonist, a successful music writer, loses his good-looking girlfriend, an actress, to a rock star. He then runs into them at an expensive resort in Hawaii, where he befriends the rock star, romances the gorgeous hotel receptionist, and is once again pursued by his ex-girlfriend, whom he then gets to reject.

Gee, that really resonates with me.

Knocked Up was a little better, even if the main romantic interest, played by Katherine Heigl, was a successful TV personality.

Superbad, on the other hand, deserves every bit of the cult following it has attracted.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

When it rains...

Warren Buffett once said that it's only when the tide goes out that you can tell who's been swimming without a bathing suit. (Of course, given Warren's investments in Wells Fargo, American Express, Conoco Phillips, US Bancorp, and GE, he's down to a thong himself.)

But Buffett has been a great investor for a long time, and is famously honest as well as witty (I hope they put together a book of his annual reports sometime). And before his GE and Goldman Sachs investments last fall, he did say that he had no idea where the stock market was headed in the short term. (One more thing he was right about.)

A lot of people are not so honest. Our economy is at ebb tide right now and many of them are scrambling for cover, of which there isn't much.

This morning it was announced that yet another operator of a Ponzi scheme, Nicholas Cosmo, founder of Agape World, has surrendered to authorities. His take was $380 million.

The NY Times article stated, "In 1997, while working as a stockbroker...Mr. Cosmo was accused of misappropriating funds, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to a single federal charge in 1999 and was sentenced to 21 months in prison and ordered to pay at least $135,000 in restitution. He was also told to undergo 'extensive gambling therapy' while in prison, according to court records."

Cosmo was born in 1971, making him only 26 at the time of his first arrest. Given that, and that people who become "addicts" of vices with no physical component are much more likely to be sociopaths, it seems a fairly safe bet that Cosmo is one such.

After all, it takes a very special kind of person to operate a Ponzi scheme. Put yourself in their shoes. You have to be comfortable looking people who consider you their trusted friend straight in the eye and assuring them that their money is in good hands, all the while intending to do nothing but steal from them. Then, after you take their money, you have to go about your life as if nothing is amiss, and not let it bother you. There's only one type of person who can do that well, a sociopath.

Speaking of such, another Ponzi schemer, Arthur Nadel, who had gone on the lam a couple weeks ago, was arrested in Tampa today by the FBI. Nadel had made $300 million disappear. Sadly for him, he wasn't quite as effective in making himself disappear, and was caught just a few miles from his home base of Sarasota.

Many of these guys will never be caught. But when they are, it's always gratifying.

Livin' large

News came out this morning that Citigroup is trying to hang on to its brand new $50 million dollar corporate jet.

I don't blame them.

The plane comes with a leather interior, gourmet gallery, and entertainment center. Sounds like fun. (C'mon, when you're working hard, you gotta take a break every now and then.) I'm betting the flight attendants who work this plane are pretty good-looking, too. Hey, let's have a party in the sky!

The only problem is, the taxpayers just shelled out $45 billion to keep Citi afloat, not to mention the $300 billion in guarantees to back potentially toxic Citi assets.

Without that taxpayer-funded bailout, those same Citi execs who use this aircraft would all be on the unemployment line right now. So the plane does seem just a trifle self-indulgent.

The story reminded me of some of the people I knew when I was working on Wall Street, people who would take advantage of every expense account and every perk they possibly could.

In my business (bond trading), people like this were known as "broker slime" since they would generally hit the brokers up for whatever they could. The brokers were generally happy to oblige, since they depended on us (the dealers, i.e., investment banks) for business. As a rule they didn't have a lot to distinguish their services (which consisted of facilitating inter-dealer trades) from those of the other brokers, so they relied on entertainment. I don't blame them for providing these services, it was what they had to do. But a fair number of guys on our side of the business were known for being particularly shameless in terms of what they'd ask for.

Guys like this seemed to have a different mindset. To them, having a good time consisted purely of "living large," i.e., doing something which cost a lot of money, preferably other peoples' money.

Full disclosure: I was offered theater tickets, and accepted them a few times. And I tagged along when other people ordered limos on a number of occasions. But a lot of the other stuff just didn't appeal to me.

One thing the broker slime would ask for on a regular basis was limousine rides, no matter their destination. I guess it does make you feel more important when you have someone else working for you, i.e., driving the car. And "limo" does have a nice sound to it: it evokes memories of prom nights, and evidently makes some people feel like Gordon Gekko.

Personally, I find it more relaxing not to have a stranger in the car. Driving yourself just isn't all that hard.

Some of the traders enjoyed being taken out to fancy restaurants where they could order expensive bottles of wine. It's true, the food at fancy restaurants can be quite tasty. But I find it hard to relax and enjoy the food when I have to make conversation with someone I don't particularly like. Don't misinterpret, I didn't dislike most of the brokers, I knew they were just doing their job: to wine and dine (and flatter) me because they wanted more of my business. It's just that I don't see how spending an evening like that is fun. And you'd have to be awfully self-indulgent to believe whatever the brokers tell you about yourself.

Personally, I'd rather have a peanut butter and honey English muffin at a kitchen table with someone who actually enjoys my company. (Unfortunately, that excludes my family, the people with whom I most often share that fare.)

Anyway, the fancy stuff is wasted on me -- I can't tell the difference between a fifteen dollar bottle of wine and a five hundred dollar bottle. And even if I could, it would have been hard for me to enjoy. All I was ever able to think about in that situation was how much each sip I was tasting cost.

One man who does have more discerning tastes, by the way, is recently deposed Merrill exec John Thain, who spent $1.2 million on his office redecoration, including $1400 for a wastebasket. (I swear, I can't tell a $1200 trash can from a $1400 one.) He also spent $35,000 for a commode. In this case "commode" refers to a dresser, although it might have been more apropos had it referred to the other kind.

One of the more infamous broker slime moves was to ask a broker to take you to strip club. The brokers would show up, acting as if they were really happy to see you, and take you in a limo to one of Manhattan's well known strip clubs, where the women would act as if they were equally happy to see you. (At least the limo drivers didn't act overjoyed to see you.)

Once again, full disclosure: I once tagged along to one of the more downscale local clubs, where a couple of guys who looked like Hells Angels stood guard at the smoky bar in front of the dancers. (Trust me, I've never been in a less arousing situation.)

But I did hear stories from guys who had gone to Scores, the most famous "gentlemen's club." And it always left me wondering. What kind of guy sits at a table tucking twenties into a stripper's g-string while she gives him a lap dance, shoves her her implants in his face, and whispers in his ear that he's not like all the other guys who come there -- and then believes her?

Pretty much the same kind of guy who feels important because he is flying in a corporate jet with a "Citi" logo on the outside.

Thursday, January 22, 2009


There is a disease abroad in the land, and people afflicted with it exhibit the following symptoms:

They laugh at the lamest of jokes, and seem capable of making only that type themselves.

They are not particularly socially skilled, and are almost never exciting to be around.

They are incapable of giving offense.

They study very hard.

They have no spontaneity.

The disease is a bit like sickle cell anemia in that it affects primarily one race. In fact, my brother and I -- who are half-Japanese and half-Scottish -- refer to this disease as "Asian-itis." Whites sometimes contract this disease as well, but when they get it, they're just called nerds. (Am I allowed to be critical of Asians in the same spirit in which black people are allowed to use the n-word? Either way, having written honestly about other races, I feel obliged to write honestly about my own.)

In my experience blacks sometimes disparage whites for being boring, wimpy, nervous little twits who are easily intimidated and not very street smart. Whites, if they are of such a mind, sometimes disdain blacks for being criminally inclined, less intelligent, and less hard-working.

It has often occurred to me that Asians and whites have the same basic relationship, but with the roles reversed.

Of course, much of my experience with Asians has been with Japanese-Americans, who tend to be the most law-abiding people around. I'm sure there are plenty of Hmong or Vietnamese gang members who might quarrel with what I've said. (I, on the other hand, would not quarrel with them.)

I've heard it said (I don't have proof of this) that the bell curve describing the northeast Asian (Japanese, Korean, Chinese) IQ, while it has a higher mean, is also taller and steeper, with narrower tails. In other words, even though northeast Asians have a higher mean IQ, at roughly 110, they also have fewer geniuses in the 180+ range. It has been postulated that this is the reason that they lagged behind the West during the industrial revolution. For it is the people in the 180+ range who provide the inventions which really move a society forward. A high bell curve with shorter tails is a good foundation for a society which will keep their airplanes in the air and on time, but it tends not to produce the people who will invent air travel in the first place.

I've heard all the arguments about Confucianism and how Asian culture promotes conformity and doesn't encourage invention, and they're all true. Nonetheless, the IQ argument rings true as well. I've also heard the arguments about how the most creative minds are not necessarily those with the highest IQs (and that once you get past 140 it makes little difference), and those are true as well. Nevertheless, scientific invention does not originate in cultures with low average intelligence, so IQ is a fairly good proxy for inventiveness.

If there is less genetic variety among Asians, it is also expressed by another stereotype, that Asians look more alike. It's not considered polite to say so, but it's true. Caucasians come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, hair color, and facial shapes. Asians all have black hair and brown eyes. They all have relatively flat features (with nary a prominent nose). And you can roam the streets of Tokyo for hours and never see a fat Japanese unless you wander into a sumo arena.

I remember an incident when my daughter Rebecca was five years old and we were visiting my Japanese cousins. While we were sitting in the living room she pointed at the sisters sitting on the couch, and said, "You two are the twinsy sisters." (They weren't twins, and by Asian standards didn't look that much alike, despite being sisters.)

I thought oh no, please Rebecca, don't say it. Rebecca then explained, "You have the same haircut." This was true, so I breathed a big sigh of relief. But just as I was exhaling, Rebecca added the fatal words: "And the same face."

The two sisters remained motionless, their smiles frozen.

I felt like crawling into the nearest hole, but Rebecca did have a point. Asians do tend to look more alike. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

In fact, there's nothing wrong with acting alike, either.

Unless you want people to remember you.

(In case you're wondering, the answer is yes, I am determined to offend absolutely everyone with this blog, even my own relatives.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

One of us

The outpouring of joy from black people since the election of Barack Obama reached a crescendo yesterday during his Inauguration. Close to two million people, many African-American, braved single digit temperatures to see the first black President of the United States assume office.

Ever since Obama won the Iowa primary the anticipation has been palpable. When he won election in early November, black communities across the country celebrated. Their joy was understandable. Black people came to this country as slaves and were discriminated against long after slavery ended. Theirs has been a long and difficult journey. And now, finally, the ultimate milestone. One of their own has won election to the highest office in the land.

Well, sorta.

Technically, Barack Obama is more closely related to the Anglo majority of this country than he is to the African American population.

The vast majority of African Americans are the descendants of slaves who were brought here from various parts of West Africa. A few came from Central Africa, but none were from East Africa. Most were purchased from African tribal leaders in what is present day Sierra Leone, Ghana, Liberia, Gabon, and Nigeria. If you were a slave trader, it made no sense to double the length of your journey by sailing all the way down around the Cape of Good Hope up to the Horn of Africa to procure your slaves. So virtually all New World blacks are the descendants of West Africans.

Kenya is located almost four thousand miles from Sierra Leone. That is a vast distance, both geographically and genetically. Ethiopians and Somalians don't even look like West Africans (they tend to resemble David Bowie's wife Imam). Kenyans, located just south of those two countries, have facial features which more closely resemble those of West Africans, but from the neck down they resemble their skinny East African brethren. Even within Kenya, people can easily tell the Kikuyu from the Luo just from appearance. (Obama's father was a Luo.)

One indication of the genetic gap between the two coasts is that while virtually all great sprinters are of West African descent, and East Africans dominate distance running, there has never been a single great distance runner of West African descent, nor a great sprinter of East African descent.

To use a completely unscientific analogy, Kenyans are about as closely related to the West Africans as, say, Malaysians are to Mongolians. Which makes Barack more distant cousin than brother to most African Americans. (He may be considered a "brother" by the community, but he is more an adoptive one than a biological one.) His mother, on the other hand, was regular plain vanilla Anglo, a Dunham from Kansas. So Barack is more closely related genetically to the average WASP than to the average African American.

He doesn't even look particularly African-American. When I first saw his picture a few years ago, I was struck by how much he resembled an Arab from, say, Morocco or Algeria. It is telling that the closest doppelganger they have been able to come up with for Obama so far is that Indonesian photographer.

Of course, genetics aside, in this country you're considered black if you have so much as one eighth African blood. So, in social terms, Barack is black, no question. There are certainly plenty of other Americans who, genetically speaking, are at least half Caucasian, yet who are also considered black. And Barack, who undoubtedly discovered early on that he was considered something of an outsider in places like Kansas, obviously made a conscious decision to embrace an African-American identity when he moved to Chicago.

So, yes, Barack is African-American.


Monday, January 19, 2009

Andrew Wyeth vs. the critics

Andrew Wyeth, the well known painter, died on Friday, January 16th, at age 91. Wyeth's most famous painting may have been "Christina's World," shown below at left. His most famous series were the "Helga Pictures," depicting his neighbor Mrs. Testorf, shown below to the right.

His obituary in Saturday's NY Times was titled, "Andrew Wyeth, Realist and Lightning Rod, Dies." The article described him as "one of the most popular and also most lambasted artists in the history of American art, a reclusive linchpin in a colorful family dynasty of artists, and a painter whose precise, realist views of a harsh rural life became emblems of national culture and incited endless debates about the nature of modern art....Because of his popularity, a bad sign to many art world insiders, Mr. Wyeth came to represent middle class values and ideals that modernism claimed to reject."

Another article, in the Times Arts section, was headlined, "For Wyeth, Both Praise And Doubt." This article went on in the same vein.

If you've ever tried to draw a realistic depiction of a face, you know how hard it is to get right. Capturing a facial expression is far more difficult. Wyeth was able to capture an expression, establish a mood, even allow us to gaze into somebody's soul. His skill was the result of a long, hard apprenticeship. Under his father's tutelage, Wyeth became an expert draftsman very early on, and even did illustrations under his father's name while still in his teens.

But such talent is often disdained by the arbiters of artistic taste today. They prefer artists who make statements.

The interesting question is, how did we ever get to a place where the above paintings are considered controversial, yet the ones below are not? (On the left is one of Jackson Pollock's finest works, and on the right, one of Andy Warhol's.)

When I was younger and more deferential, I just assumed I wasn't sophisticated enough to "get" modern art. I've since met charlatans of every stripe, in many professions. I'm also old and crotchety now. So I'm more outspoken about calling modern art what it is: junk. There's simply nothing there to get. It is, at best, a glorified Rorschach test.

My suspicion is that artists like Wyeth make the critics insecure, because they know they could never do what he does. So they scoff at him. Modern art, on the other hand, may leave people wondering, but it leaves no one insecure. So it puts critics in a more generous frame of mind. It even allows them to be the ones to be creative by interpreting a piece of "art" as they see fit.

Imagine if the entire world were run by people with the modern art esthetic:

Hollywood would produce movies that consisted of nothing but two hours of static on the screen, the kind we used to get in the old days of black and white TVs and UHF/VHF reception. ("You don't get it? You know, true art sometimes requires you to do a little work too. You can't just sit back and be passive all the time.")

Detroit would try to sell us cars after they had been crushed in a head on collision, rather than before. ("We have to get beyond that old way of seeing cars as just transportation. That point A to point B mentality is just so bourgeois.")

The literary world would create sentences like these: "Search go years thorough conclusion vastness begun after so cave grand bicycle. American they clock difficulty essential no serious. Susan other another prescriptive field children recessive." ("Can't you move beyond that limiting, linear way of thinking?")

I take that last paragraph back. The sentences would be more like this: "Wfposiatuwev pmgdsflkj sriu klesr v spioerucvwmc[,.d erimg." ("This is avant garde genius, the absolute cutting edge of prose. What an overarching statement about how poorly we communicate with each other.")

The fashion industry would design clothes such that even the emperor himself would not actually be wearing any....Wait a sec. Sorry, that point has already been made elsewhere. And now that I think of it, the fashion industry is a bit like modern art, at least in terms of what you see in the fashion shows.

The best test of art might be to leave it on a suburban (middle class) lawn, and see what the homeowner did with it. In most cases, people would probably just deposit it in their garbage can. Where it belongs. On the other hand, the garbage can itself might just as well be considered modern art. Just ask Andy.

There was actually a case recently, I can't remember the details, where a janitor came across such an exhibit at a museum recently and simply swept it up and put it in the trash. True story.

Rest in peace Andrew Wyeth.

Say it ain't so Mikhail

While leafing through the Sunday Styles section of the NY Times yesterday I opened to the middle page and saw a Louis Vuitton ad featuring a familiar-looking man in the back seat of a limo next to one of their pieces of luggage. When I looked closer I saw the unmistakable wine-colored birthmark on his forehead. My first reaction was, it can't be. But it was.

What on earth was Mikhail Gorbachev doing in a Louis Vuitton ad? Isn't it a bit beneath the dignity of the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to be advertising an overpriced tote bag? This was the last leader of our chief adversary in the Cold War, the man who introduced glasnost and perestroika, the man who oversaw the dissolution of the Soviet Union. (For these and other reasons he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990.)

Richard Nixon once said of Gorbachev that he was the single most impressive world leader he had ever met. Nixon said that no matter where a conversation led, no matter how many tangential subjects might be brought up, Gorbachev would always gently but firmly steer the talks back in the direction they had started, the direction he wanted them to go. He said he had never once seen Gorbachev lose his train of thought, no matter the situation.

Yet here he was, posing like just another empty-headed anorexic Wilhemina model.

It was a little like seeing Fidel Castro doing ads for Morgan Stanley. Or Jimmy Carter with his arm around a bikini babe touting the benefits of Brut cologne. Except that Gorbachev was far more important than either of them. Maybe it was closer to seeing Joseph Stalin spring back to life to tell us that things go better with Coke.

I wondered if he had fallen on such hard times that he was reduced to pimping duffel bags. Then I looked at the fine print below. In very tiny type it said, "Mikhail Gorbachev and Louis Vuitton are proud to support Green Cross International." (Green Cross is an environmental organization founded by Gorbachev in 1993.) I'm guessing it was the Vuitton ad agency art director, and not Gorbachev, who chose the size of that type.

My next thought was, exactly whom is Louis Vuitton trying to appeal to with that ad? Designers use beautiful young models whom most consumers want to look like. Pharmaceutical companies which cure erectile dysfunction use particularly rugged-looking men in their ads because they don't want the men who use their products to feel insecure about their masculinity. Beer companies use humorous men because they want to remind their consumers what a good time can be had while under the influence.

So which demographic was Gorbachev supposed to appeal to? He's neither young nor good-looking. And he's far too intelligent to be pretentious, which is what people who want expensive luggage usually are.

Then it hit me. Aha! They're trying to appeal to that all important former-dictators-of-Evil-Empires demographic. ("After I replaced Andrei Gromyko with Eduard Shevardnadze as Foreign Minister, I would never have dreamed of traveling to my summit with President Reagan in Reykjavik without my Louis Vuitton luggage. And neither should you.")

It's too bad Reagan isn't still alive, they could have done a joint commercial. ("Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall. You know, with the axe you keep inside that beautiful Louis Vuitton bag.")

I guess Gorbachev agreed to be in the ad in exchange for a contribution to Green Cross. But it still doesn't sit right. Twenty-four hours later, my head's still spinning.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Worth a thousand words

One of the more interesting websites I've stumbled across is the following:

It's fairly well known; you may have already seen it. It is from the Faces of Meth project, which originated in the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office, where Deputy Bret King had the brilliant idea to document the mug shots of people who had succumbed to the temptations of methamphetamine. These before and after shots are essentially extreme negative makeovers, showing the incredibly destructive effects that meth can have in a surprisingly short time.

For instance, the following two shots:

In just two and a half years this woman has gone from being a MILF to a MIDNLF (with the "DN" standing for "definitely not"). In the lefthand shot she wears a pleasant expression, and looks quite serene for someone posing for a mug shot. She appears the kind of woman who would probably be quite embarrassed that her family will find out she had to go to court to clear up her DUI. By the time the righthand shot was taken she had clearly moved beyond embarrassment. She looks like an alcoholic grandmother whose common law husband just beat her up because she hid the moonshine under their trailer.

This fellow has undergone an equally dramatic transformation. In the shot on the left he looks like a former star linebacker whose greatest disappointment in life was that his NFL career never materialized. So now he works as a lumberjack (he didn't study hard in college) and takes his frustrations out by beating the crap out of anyone who looks at his girlfriend the wrong way. In fact, the look he's giving you right now seems to indicate that you're in for the same treatment yourself. In the photo on the right, also taken just two and a half years later, he looks as if he's pleading piteously with you not to beat the crap out of him for having offered you oral sex in the men's room of the local Greyhound Terminal. Pride, which loomed so large in his previous persona, seems no longer to be a factor.

These are just two of the many sets of photographs from the project.

Not all of the transformations are quite so dramatic, but many are. In just a couple years, meth addicts develop skin lesions, their lips grow thinner, they lose their muscle, and their skin sags and turns ashen. Both genders appear to lose their sex hormones. And whatever gleam they had in their eyes is replaced by a dull, vacant stare.

In other words, the meth has stripped them of their humanity.

All the photographs are mug shots, so some of the subjects may not have been upstanding citizens to begin with. But a lot of the earlier shots simply look like the mug shots of celebrities you might see on The later shots often make them look like extras from Night of the Living Dead.

If you have a child you think might be at risk for hard drugs, show him these photos. Just tell him, "Go ahead and take meth. It'll be great, 'cause in just two or three years we'll look the same age, so we'll be able to hang out more and go to the same parties."

There are, by the way, around five hundred words in this post. Even if I had written twice as many, I never could have had close to the same impact as the photos themselves, proving that old adage a drastic understatement.

Friday, January 16, 2009

An American hero

All 155 passengers aboard US Airways Flight 1549 are undoubtedly very grateful that their pilot was Chesley B. Sullenberger III, a former F-4 fighter jet pilot with the Air Force.

According to Yahoo, "He served on a board that investigated aircraft accidents and participated later in several National Transportation Safety Board investigations. Sullenberger had been studying the psychology of keeping airline crews functioning even in the face of crisis."

He evidently runs a safety consulting firm in addition to having been an airline pilot since 1980.

Sullenberger is also an experienced glider pilot. (His Airbus 320 was effectively turned into a glider as its engines gave out.)

All of which made him the ideal expert to land the airplane, as gently as possible, onto the Hudson River yesterday.

What made him a hero was that after everybody was off, he walked the length of the airplane twice to make absolutely certain that there was no one else left onboard.

Imagine the scene. The airplane is half submerged, with the icy Hudson lapping against the windows of the plane. The cabin lights are no longer working, so you can barely see in the darkness. The airplane could sink at any second, a situation exacerbated by the extra weight of the passengers standing outside on the wings.

I can't think of any way I really want to die. But one of the last ways I'd want to go is trapped inside a sinking airplane, drowning in murky 36 degree water.

Yet Sullenberger risked exactly that, just to make sure that everyone else was safe.

In an era when the headlines are dominated by the likes of Blagojevich and Madoff, Sullenberger came along at just the right time. This is someone we needed to hear about.

Here's hoping that Sullenberger's fifteen minutes stretch out much longer, to the end of his life.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

No regrets

This morning's NY Times carried an article headlined, "Mistakes, I've Made a Few, Bush Tells Reporters."

Bush, in a press conference he called "the ultimate exit interview," went on to admit a few obvious mistakes, defend his record on terrorism, and surprise no one.

But that's not the point of this post. The point is, the headline reminded me of all the people I've ever heard (or heard of) who say that they wouldn't go back and change a thing.

How can a person go through his entire life having no regrets? This can only mean one of two things. Either he is a supreme narcissist who will never admit to any mistakes. Or he has an extreme Pollyanna-ish attitude which sees only the bright side of everything, no matter how dismal. (It's usually pretty obvious which type he is if you know him.)

Not a thing you'd change if you could do it all over again?

I look back and see nothing but.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Leon Panetta's first day on the job

No sooner do I praise Barack Obama for his practical, relatively nonpartisan choices for his Cabinet than he picks Leon Panetta, yet another Clinton retread, to head the CIA.

Obama is certainly coming into office with a mandate, so one can't complain about his pick of a leftist. But Panetta's utter lack of intelligence experience (other than two years in the Army, from 1964 to 1966) has left many scratching their heads.

Those of us with experience in the corporate world know that bosses often don't know what they're doing. But most have been in their field long enough to at least fake it. How is Panetta going to fake it?

Imagine the scene when he walks into the office on the first day:

Panetta: "Wow, so this is where it all happens. Hey, do I get one of those pens with the poison ink?"

Aide: "I'm sorry Mr. Panetta, we don't use those anymore."

Panetta: "Well how about a car with an ejector seat? I've always wanted one of those. You see, I'm married."

Aide: "Sir, that's just in the movies. We never used those."

Panetta: "How about an attache case with hidden knives?"

Aide: "Sir, you have to understand, we're mostly in the information-gathering business these days."

Panetta: "Well then can you at least give me some juicy info -- was JFK really boning Marilyn Monroe?"

Aide: "Sir that's pretty much public knowledge now, but yes, he was."

Panetta: "You know, I think I may end up enjoying this job after all. Hey, where do I go to torture some prisoners? Got any Republicans available?"

I must admit, it does sound like a fun job. I'd like to have it myself.

I know I'm just as qualified.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

A sign of the times

Buried at the bottom of page B5 of yesterday's NY Times was an article with the (very small size) headline, "Ponzi Suspect is 82." The article took up the bottom seventeen lines of one column (there are 127 lines in a column):

"An 82 year old businessman was charged on Thursday with running a Ponzi scheme that took in at least $17 million from a clientele gleaned largely through ads in Catholic newspapers.

"The businessman, Richard S. Piccoli, of Amherst, N.Y., was charged in United States District Court with mail fraud. He was ordered to return with a lawyer on Tuesday for arraignment.

"He declined to comment after the hearing."

That was the entire article. Unless you looked carefully, you wouldn't even have seen it.

What's significant about this story, of course, is how insignificant it is.

Seventeen million dollars is less than 1/2000th of what Madoff took. But in another era, it would have been considered significant. When Dennis Levine made $10.4 million from insider trading in the late 1980's, it was a huge scandal, and was front page news for days. That amount, after inflation, would equate to what, $25 or 30 million today? The amount that Piccoli took was less, but in the same league.

Yet Piccoli's story was barely even worth a mention in the Times. It seemed to be treated almost as a human interest story: wow, can you believe it, an 82 year old did this. Way to go gramps!

Does anyone remember the 1980's, the Decade of Greed? Doesn't it all seem so innocent now?

Of course, naming a decade after any of the seven sins seems a bit naive. Greed, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth, wrath, and pride are pretty much just a description of basic human nature. (Not base, just basic.) So any decade contains plenty of each of those. Actually, any human contains plenty of each. Pretty much every day.

It's just the scale of the greed that's escalated.

Sometimes you just get hungry

An article on AOL today had the headline, "Texas Inmate Pulls Out Eye, Eats It." Okay, so I'm a ghoul. I read the article.

It turned out that Andre Thomas, a Death Row inmate, had murdered his estranged wife, their young son, and her 13-month-old daughter back in 2004. He then ripped their hearts from their bodies, stuffed them into his pockets, took the hearts home, placed them in a plastic bag, and threw them into the trash.

Sure sounds like a prime candidate for Old Sparky.

Then, before his trial in 2004, he plucked out his right eye and discarded it. The judge ruled he was competent to stand trial anyway.

This past December, he pulled out his left eye and ate it.

"Not guilty by reason of insanity" is a plea which has been abused many times.

Not this time.

Any lawyer who cannot get Thomas off Death Row should be disbarred. (And any judge who rules him fit for execution should likewise be thrown off the bench.)

I'm not suggesting Thomas will ever lead a productive life. The state would certainly be better off without him, since he'll be nothing but a burden to the taxpayers for the rest of his years. But he's unquestionably insane. And since he's not responsible for his own actions, he shouldn't be put to death for them.

By the way, Chris Rock had a whole routine at one point devoted to the differences between black and white criminals. (If a guy carjacks someone, forces them to drive to an ATM to get out some cash, then spends it on crack, he's probably black. If a serial killer takes the undergarments from his victims and wears them while disfiguring the corpses, he's white. Etc.)

Killing three victims, two of whom are very young and one of whom is a blood relative, then tearing their hearts out, certainly appears to have Caucasian fingerprints on it. Surprisingly, Thomas is black.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

It just keeps getting better

News came out this afternoon that Madoff was ready to mail $173 million in checks to family and friends as his empire crumbled. The only thing that stopped him was that the Feds arrested him on December 11th before he could do so.

The real question is, how much money does Madoff have stashed away for himself in various places? Obviously, he knew that his pyramid couldn't keep going forever, so he knew he had to have some getaway cash. And the entire 50 billion that's missing couldn't have vanished entirely into thin air. So how many secret accounts does he have in the Cayman Islands, and Switzerland, and Liechtenstein? How many safety deposit boxes are there stuffed with thousand dollar bills that only he and his wife know about? How many safes full of bearer bonds does he have stashed with friends? How much money has he buried in remote forests?

We'll never know.

You can't put a value on sentiment

Anybody outraged by Bernie Madoff's trespasses against honor, financial responsibility, and friendship can take satisfaction that he's now under house arrest, totally unable to leave his seven million dollar apartment.

Yep, he's suffering. He's probably sitting there right now, head in hands, thinking, how can I possibly atone for having ripped off my investors like that?

Well, it emerged yesterday that he has been atoning by mailing over a million dollars worth of diamond-encrusted watches, diamond brooches, cuff links, and necklaces to his relatives.

His lawyers claimed that this was all an honest mistake, and that "to Mr. and Mrs. Madoff, the value of these items was purely sentimental." (That's why they call them lawyers.)

I understand. I feel that same sentimental attachment to my own (meager) holdings of stocks and bonds.

It also emerged yesterday that Sonja Kohn, the head of Bank Medici in Austria, has gone into hiding. Turns out that a large chunk of the $2.1 billion Medici had invested with Bernie Madoff actually belonged to Russian oligarchs.

This is not a crowd it seems wise to displease. When you scam your Palm Beach golfing buddies, they vent their wrath by speaking ill of you to the press and blackballing you from their clubs. The Russians tend to express their displeasure in more old-fashioned ways.

One can only wonder if the Russian Mafia might have been attempting to launder their money through Madoff; they tend to be really old-school.

Then again, they can consider their money successfully laundered at this point, even if most of it ended up in Bernie's special lint trap.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Please have a seat, Mr. Burris

It sounds as if Roland Burris is about to get his Senate seat. The collective outrage of the Senate Democratic leadership at the gall and corruption of Rod Blagojevich crumbled in the face of political correctness.

Blagojevich gambled, correctly as it turns out, that the Democratic Senators, every last one of whom are white, wouldn't have the nerve to say no to a legally appointed black man who showed up at their doorstep.

But while their resistance lasted, what a delicious image it was: the party of affirmative action and forced busing not allowing its only prospective black member entry into what has been called the most exclusive club in the world.

Well, ahem, yes, we're exclusive, but we didn't mean it that way, we, uh, have nothing against Mr. Burris personally, it's just that, you know, Governor Blagojevich has a cloud over his head, and uh, oh well, please come in Mr. Burris.

Blagojevich must have really enjoyed the spectacle of all the Senators who denounced him squirming.

Now it turns out that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had sent Blagojevich a list of four people whom he considered unacceptable as Senator. All four were black men. He also sent the names of two people he did consider acceptable. Both were white women.

Will the mainstream media run with this? Or will they squelch it since Reid is a Democrat?

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Roy Saari

Roy Saari, one of the legendary names in swimming history, died on December 30th at age 63. He was a two time world record holder in the 1500 meter freestyle, Olympic silver medalist in 1964 in the 400 meter individual medley, and nine time NCAA champion.

The cause of death was a massive coronary. Whenever someone like this dies of a heart-related ailment, especially at a relatively young age, it's a little surprising. You'd think that a heart strong enough to power Saari to such a glorious swimming career would not give out at 63.

It's possible that in the last forty years he took up smoking, or drinking, or sucked down a pint of Haagen Dasz every other night. But judging from the older picture of him (with his wife), and the obituary (he was a developer, city planner, and realtor, and had two children) his vices were probably relatively minor. It's also possible he hadn't done any exercise in forty years.

I was slightly surprised when I saw these pictures of him for the first time. Whenever I read about a world record holder, I always expect someone who looks like a young Dolph Lundgren, so am usually surprised to see someone who looks more, well, human. In the left hand picture Saari looks like Lundgren's somewhat wimpy 16-year-old brother. The older Saari looked like planner.

This is no knock on Saari. There's no questioning the toughness of anyone with his credentials in the distance events. It's a knock on my stupid expectations.

In any case, it's surprising that he would go down from a heart attack. When I mentioned this to a friend, he suggested that it was almost as if some of these guys who were so vital when young just burned through their lives more quickly. Maybe there's something to that. When you burn the candle at both ends (I only recently figured out that phrase referred to both ends of the night, I had always pictured a candle with a wick at each end) you're certainly going to use up your life more quickly. Then again, when Saari was in training, he probably led a healthy lifestyle.

There do seem to be a fair number of people who die while exercising. Whenever I hear of someone who dies from a heart attack after three sets of tennis, or who dies while running (every major marathon seems to claim at least one victim), I wonder how much longer they would have lived had they not exercised so strenuously. Think of Marlon Brando, who spent his last twenty years north of three hundred pounds, yet lived to eighty. It's a pretty good bet he didn't spend his spare time on a Stairmaster. And who knows, maybe he lived the longer for it.

I've known a fair number of physically fit people who died young, and a fair number of degenerates who've stuck around surprisingly long.

Maybe we all have our built in expiration dates and there's just not a lot we can do about it.

And maybe we should admit to ourselves that we exercise for sanity and vanity rather than for longevity.

Friday, January 2, 2009


I was reminded of my fear of flying recently when I went to California. The flight out was turbulent, and, as always in those circumstances, I resolved never to fly again.

During turbulence I usually look out at the plane's wing and find some comfort in the fact that the plane is still horizontal. But on this flight the woman in the window seat kept the shutter down, so I didn't have that option. Plus I was in the very back row, and thus felt each jolt more strongly.

The fact is, airplanes never go down because of turbulence these days. You used to occasionally hear of a crash due to wind shear, but the technology has advanced so that just about the only time you're in any danger is at takeoff and landing. I must have told myself that at least a hundred times midflight.

So why is flying so scary? (I know I'm not alone in that feeling.) Part of it is that you're so totally helpless in a plane. You're sealed into that claustrophobia-inducing fuselage and have absolutely no control over your fate. (The first class seats look less constrictive, but I've never sat in one of them.)

In a car you at least have the illusion of control. (I'm familiar with the statistics showing that we're safer in a plane, though that knowledge neither scares me in my car nor calms me in a plane.) Whatever happens in your car is up to you and you can at least imagine that you can survive a crash, especially at low speeds, by simply bracing yourself.

In a plane, you know there's absolutely no way you'd survive a crash. I'm not sure exactly why they tell you to put your head between your knees in case of a crash landing, but the idea that this position will save you as you go into a mountainside at 500 miles per hour has always seemed ludicrous.

And all of us who have ever tried to fly a model airplane or even a kite know that the natural order of things is for gravity to eventually triumph.

Let's face it. That big heavy metal contraption is just not supposed to be able to stay in the air. It goes against nature.

Part of the fear, of course, is that we're so high up. When you look out the window, the ground is just so, so far beneath us. Most of us know from experience how much it hurts to fall from, say, six feet. So it seems only logical that falling from thirty-six thousand feet would hurt six thousand times as as much. This is not a pleasant thought.

There are in fact good evolutionary reasons for humans to have developed a fear of heights. If we didn't shy away from precipices, we would be more likely to fall off cliffs and not pass our genes along to the next generation. So for the most part we're descended from people who did develop that fear, and passed it on to us.

Other phobias have equally good evolutionary grounding. Freud, that old charlatan, would have had us believe that fear of snakes is simply a displaced fear of homosexuality, with the snake representing a phallic symbol. But in fact those who don't have an innate fear of slithering reptiles are more likely to be bitten and poisoned to death. Likewise with fear of the dark (we can't see as well as potential predators with night vision) and fear of spiders (most of which are poisonous, though few are poisonous enough to kill us).

There's a reason people don't take Freud seriously anymore. (The real question is, why did people ever take him seriously to begin with? Is seeing everything in sexual terms so appealing that it makes us forsake common sense?)

I haven't figured out exactly what it is about public speaking, most peoples' number one fear, that makes it so nerve-wracking. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when there are that many people all looking at you, it means you're in danger somehow. (In the hunting and gathering days, the only reason for everyone to be looking at you at once was because they wanted to hunt you down. Or maybe because a mammoth was about to stomp you.) But I'm not sure.

On the few occasions in the past twenty-five years when I've had to give a public speech, I've found that having a drink ahead of time puts me just where I want to be. The problem is, that heady combination of exuberance and dulled nerves from a drink tends to last only an hour or so, whereas a cross country flight lasts the better part of six hours. Staying drunk for that period of time would almost guarantee air sickness, which would make the flight unpleasant for one's seatmates as well.

Speaking of drinking, our return flight was on New Year's Day, and I found myself wondering if the pilots had attended a party the night before. I never got a glimpse of them, so I had to wonder for the entire trip. But the return flight was smoother, so their possible hangovers didn't loom as large.

There were no turbaned men on the return flight, as there had been on the flight out, so neither was that an issue. (9/11 sure didn't help my phobia any.) I find myself more than happy to go through airport security these days. In fact I would willingly undergo a cavity check if I knew everyone else -- especially those turbaned men -- were checked equally thoroughly.

Being back on solid earth, is, of course, wonderful at first, even if you're a little discombobulated and suffering from third degree rump-itis as you stumble towards baggage claim. But it's a little like getting your braces off -- you look forward to it intensely, but when it happens, you forget about it shortly thereafter.

Unless you're short of subjects to write about on your blog.