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Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Oh, I majored in Myself"

I was looking at the NY Times wedding section today and came across the blurb on the civil union of the two men pictured above. (I always read the blurbs on the gay marriages, I find them fascinating). The man on the left is named Mark Bartkiewicz. He is 23.

The Times reported that Mr. Bartkiewicz "works in New York as a research assistant at the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a group focused on insuring safe schools for all students. He graduated from the College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J., and received a master's degree in sociology with a concentration in gender and sexuality studies from the University of Amsterdam."

An awful lot of people go to college these days to major in whatever they are, i.e., women's studies, black studies, or some other line of study which will merely serve to entrench them further in their particular political/racial/sexual identity. But isn't an education supposed to be broadening? Don't we theoretically go to college to learn about other people, and not just ourselves? What is the point of "diversity" for people who only want to navel gaze?

People used to study things like anthropology; in my day they would go off and study the Yanomano Indians in Brazil, or other cultures. In an earlier era Margaret Mead went to study the Samoans. (They basically punked her, by the way, by pretending to be far more promiscuous than they actually were.) But the point is, people used to be interested in studying new and different cultures. Nowadays it seems that all too often they want only to "study" themselves. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that this trend is indicative of the increasing narcissism of our culture.

I'd be more impressed by Mr. Bartkiewicz if he had taken up electrical engineering. Or, for that matter, by a straight football player who had taken up Mr. Bartkiewicz's field of concentration. But it never seems to work that way.

Barack Obama = Tiger Woods?

It's pretty clear that Tiger Woods' downfall would not have been so steep had he not had such a pristine image before. Had he occasionally opened up to reporters and maybe winked at them and made appreciative remarks about females, they might have cut him a little more slack. Had he had presented himself as more human and less saintly, the public would not have been so fascinated -- perhaps even gleeful -- about his troubles.

But Woods kept a tight lid on the information he fed to reporters, and kept his public image unrealistically pure. So now he is suffering the consequences.

Likewise, had the hopes for Barack Obama not been so high before, the disappointment in him wouldn't be so acute. But the image he crafted for himself, with the media's connivance, was simply too good to be true. So now we have Barack Obama, Part II: The Backlash.

Of course, the people who are most disappointed in Obama deserve to be, because the clues were there during the campaign for anybody not willfully blind. He distanced himself from Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayres, though he had obviously been close to both. He criticized corruption, but had taken a sweetheart real estate deal from Tony Rezko. And he had positioned himself as a liberal centrist, when all previous evidence indicated he was a far left liberal. (He was on record as having said that the great tragedy of the civil rights movement was that it hadn't legislated "economic justice" and he was supportive of the redistribution of wealth.) Obama said that he was a strong believer in the public option for campaign finance, but as soon as it became apparent that he would raise more money than McCain through the private option, he opted for that.

If you didn't connect those dots, it was only because you didn't want to. Now the gap between Obama's words and actions is clearer than ever, and his approval ratings have plummeted commensurately.

There seems an almost mathematical correlation between how saintly the public image and how steep the subsequent fall.

The American public also loves redemption, though, so don't be surprised when Woods and Obama bounce back.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Sleepless in Seattle

My 15 year old daughter watched Sleepless in Seattle for the first time the other day, so I found myself seeing it through her eyes, then trying to figure out what makes this movie so effective. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Nora Ephron, who directed and co-wrote, is a master manipulator.

Having Tom Hanks be a still grieving widower was a smart move. When young love is not cut off by premature death (as in Romeo and Juliet, or here) its purity and intensity can never last. Hanks and his wife would probably have ended up arguing about money, or having affairs, and the marriage would have either ended or descended into petty squabbling the way real marriages do. But Hanks' wife has died before any of this could happen, so the background image of everlasting love is established.

Imagine Hanks had been single because of a divorce. It's certainly harder to picture Meg Ryan dreamily falling in love with the disembodied voice on the radio had it been snarling about an ex-wife. ("The bitch just wouldn't listen, no matter how many times I told her to curb her spending!")

Hanks' son is an indispensable part of the setup, allowing Hanks to demonstrate his natural aptitude for fatherhood. He's at an age where he still pulls at the maternal heartstrings. He is the one who phones the radio show which elicits Hanks' on air tribute to his dead wife. And finally, the boy facilitates the eventual meeting of Hanks and Ryan.

Another clever plot device is having Meg Ryan feel foolish about being so romantic, but then ultimately be rewarded for her romanticism. The message conveyed is that not only is it natural to feel foolish about your feelings, it's okay to act upon them as well.

The two designated turkeys in the film are both calibrated perfectly. Meg Ryan's fiance, played by Bill Pullman, is actually as good-looking as Tom Hanks (neither is likely to inspire love at first sight). Pullman plays a nice guy, but his allergies and lame jokes immediately demote him from possible love interest to the-one-we-don't-want-Meg-to-end-up-with. (Note to guys: when wooing, quit with the lame jokes and just be real. Oh, and don't sneeze too much.) The one woman Hanks goes out with prior to meeting Ryan is also not unattractive, but is rendered noxious by her maniacal laugh. Naturally, neither Hanks nor Ryan is burdened with any such flaws.

I suspect that women like Meg Ryan in their movies because she's nonthreatening. She's very attractive, but in a pixieish way. She doesn't have aggressive cheekbones like Sharon Stone's, nor does she exude a throbbing sexuality the way Angelina Jolie does. But she still attracts men, and is therefore perfect for the role. (Imagine Angelina Jolie in the role: instead of hesitating in the street that day in Seattle, she would simply have crossed it and killed her perceived competition.)

What Ryan, an underrated actress, does best is express an inchoate, romantic longing. And she is very convincing at appearing to be trying to convince herself that she is really in love with her fiance even though she's not. (It must take a lot of guile for an actress to so skillfully portray guilelessness.)

The movie within a movie aspect -- all the references to "An Affair to Remember" -- wouldn't have worked without the contrast between the two sets of lovers. Hanks and Ryan are far more down-to-earth than Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant, who epitomized mid-twentieth century Hollywood glamor. It's hard to imagine Kerr, one of the great beauties of screendom, chowing down on the popcorn with Rosie O'Donnell as the two of them cry over a corny old movie. Likewise, it's near impossible to imagine Grant dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans and tossing a football with his son.

Ephron has very cleverly scrubbed the movie clean of almost all references to sex. This is a movie about two kindred soulmates finally finding each other, not about two healthy beasts who just want to rut. Two early references to sex are purposely unappealing. At one point we see Ryan waking up in the middle of the night with Bill Pullman next to her in bed. But he's been neutered so effectively that one can't imagine they just had coitus. And at one point a frustrated Hanks announces that he is going to get laid. But his prospective date, the laugher, is so unappealing that we root for him not to. (Please, wait for Meg!!)

Whoever chose the soundtrack -- I'll assume Ephron -- knew which paeans to love would work best: Jimmy Durante's "As Time Goes By," Louis Armstrong's "A Kiss to Build a Dream on," Nat King Cole's "Stardust," Harry Connick Jr.'s "A Wink and a Smile," and other standards. (A hip-hop soundtrack with a driving rhythm but no melody featuring lyrics about bitches and ho's might not have established quite the same romantic mood.)

The near misses, when Hanks and Ryan almost meet but don't quite, are great at heightening our anticipation. By the end of movie, we're so desperately rooting for them to meet they don't really have to do anything than just look into each other's eyes (Hanks' gaze never strays to her breasts) to convince us that love everlasting is here again. They then hold hands and walk off, to the strains of Jimmy Durante's "Make Someone Happy." (Certainly a better choice than the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb.")

The only discordant note is the presence of Rosie O'Donnell. The movie was made in 1993, before O'Donnell's public personality had emerged full flower, so it's hard to fault Ephron for having cast her. But it's hard to see O'Donnell onscreen without thinking of all the ugly spats she's gotten into over the years. It also makes one realize -- this is a separate issue -- why Hollywood stars take such great pains to conceal their homosexuality: one can't help but look at the screen and think, hmm, how awkward that must be, pretending to be heterosexual.

Re-reading what I just wrote, I see that in trying to be analytical I've ended up making fun of the movie, which certainly hadn't been my intent. I am full of admiration for Nora Ephron for her artistry. It's just that I also recognize the craftsmanship behind the artistry.

Full disclosure: I was completely, totally manipulated myself, and still am whenever I watch the movie again.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Why I prefer to get my news (like this piece) from The Onion:

Bunch of Phonies Mourn J.D. Salinger

CORNISH, NH—In this big dramatic production that didn't do anyone any good (and was pretty embarrassing, really, if you think about it), thousands upon thousands of phonies across the country mourned the death of author J.D. Salinger, who was 91 years old for crying out loud. "He had a real impact on the literary world and on millions of readers," said hot-shot English professor David Clarke, who is just like the rest of them, and even works at one of those crumby schools that rich people send their kids to so they don't have to look at them for four years. "There will never be another voice like his." Which is exactly the lousy kind of goddamn thing that people say, because really it could mean lots of things, or nothing at all even, and it's just a perfect example of why you should never tell anybody anything.

I had wanted to say something about J.D. Salinger, whose classic book I've read several times. But after seeing this obituary from The Onion, I realized that whatever I might have said, wouldn't have been said nearly as well.

Plays vs. movies

I went to New York City last night to see a play by a friend, Jon Leaf ( The play, "Sexual Healing," was quite good. It was based -- not so loosely -- on the relationship between the sex therapists William Masters and Virginia Johnson, in a story told mostly from Johnson's point of view. It was well written, well cast, and well acted. The first half of the play featured a fair amount of sex, or at least talk about sex, which tends to hold one's interest. And the second half featured a fair amount of tension, which also tends to hold one's interest.

But the entire experience reminded me of why I prefer movies. No stage set, no matter how cleverly designed, can possibly live up to location shots, particularly of beautiful locations. (Please name the play which features scenery as beautiful as that in The Sound of Music -- or Avatar.) I know, at a play you're supposed to appreciate what the designers have done with their limited resources; but appreciating what a cinematographer can do is more rewarding.

In a movie, close-ups allow the actors the luxury of subtlety. Stage actors must throw their voices -- and emote -- for the cheap seats. This hammy acting can be annoying if you're sitting nearby -- or even in the cheap seats.

A film allows you to gaze at actors who look like Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren -- at their peak. Stage actors are rarely movie star handsome. Even the villains in movies look more villainous. It's more fun to look at a villain who looks like Jack Palance in Shane than one who looks like someone you'd meet at a suburban barbecue.

Another problem in a play is that you must be on your best behavior. (Whisper in a movie theater and it won't bother the actors on the screen one bit.) If you feel a sudden urge to go to the bathroom, too bad; you must wait till intermission. And at the end of the play, not clapping for the actors as they all appear would be extremely rude.

A play theater is never quite as dark as a movie theater, either. Last night, having had dinner right before the play, during the first act I loosened my belt and undid my pant buckle. Suddenly aware that the people around me might think I was doing something untoward during the sexy scenes, I made a point of holding both of my hands -- prayer style -- in front of my mouth, so that they could see I was not using the play as a peep show.

There are people who feel more intimately involved in a story if it's told by live actors. Understandable, if misguided.

Finally, there is the difference in price. Play tickets, especially for Broadway shows, are far more expensive than movie tickets. And parking in the Times Square area is not cheap.

The ideal solution involves patience. Once a movie comes out on DVD, you can provide entertainment for an entire group of people for less than the price of one movie ticket, and watch it in comfort from your own home. And if you have to go to the bathroom, just stop the action till you return. (Try that in a theater.)

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Shareholders' rights

There has been a lot of anger over the amount of money that Wall Streeters are getting paid one short year after the taxpayer-financed bailout. And the taxpayers have good reason to be angry, especially with the AIG payouts to banks which made bad bets. Shareholders have a good reason to be angry too.

Obama's proposals for a bank excise tax and reinstituting Glass Steagall are an obvious attempt to cash in on this populist anger. But these proposals not only would fail to prevent another financial catastrophe like the one we had in the fall of '08, they don't really render justice. The financial crisis was caused by a number of factors, too numerous to list here. But the main culprits were the overextended real estate market and the prevalence of unregulated financial products. Chief among the unregulated products were collateralized debt obligations (which sliced and diced mortgage payments into so many different permutations that even the people who created them eventually didn't know what they were worth) and credit default swaps (which effectively allowed hedge funds and investment banks to bet on the downfall of other financial entities). The fact that J.P. Morgan and Citibank could trade for their own accounts had virtually nothing to do with the crisis. And the bank excise tax smacks of a windfall profits tax, which merely penalizes corporations for being successful.

In order to prevent another financial crisis the government has to establish an over the counter, regulated market for credit default swaps, where the people who sell these products have to put up some sort of collateral in order to insure that they can pay off their obligations, similar to the way the futures market is run by the Commodities Futures Trading Commission on a centralized exchange.

And in order to see justice done the government also has to figure out some way to claw back the money it paid out on the backside of the AIG bailout, to Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, and Societe Generale, among others. Each of these banks were paid over ten billion dollars apiece for their bad bets with AIG.

The other major reform which is long overdue is one concerning shareholders' rights. For far too long executives of public corporations have been paying themselves way too much, at the expense of the shareholders. The only people who are going to say no to an executive are the board of directors, and when the executive has staffed the board with his cronies, it is a license to steal from the shareholders. Congress should pass a bill making it mandatory for shareholders to get a vote to determine how much their CEO and other executives are paid. An executive who effectively pays himself is, to put it mildly, experiencing a conflict of interest. (In fact the conflict is so major as to not be a conflict at all.)

There was an article in the NY Times this morning which listed the percentage of revenue each of the major banks were paying out this year. Goldman Sachs was paying out 45 cents to its employees for every dollar of revenue it got (and the profits would have been a lot less without the AIG handout). JP Morgan paid out 63 cents, Bank of America 88 cents, and Morgan Stanley 94 cents. Citigroup actually paid out $1.45 for every dollar it took in, and thus had a loss for the year. But even when the banks turned a profit, the shareholders just got the leftovers.

This isn't just true of banks, by the way, it's true of any public corporation. I have a hard time believing that most Fortune 500 executives are worth what they get paid.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Not the smartest sex criminal ever

The following article appeared in this morning's NY Post:

Law bites 'sex' coach

by Jamie Schramm and Marc Raimondi

A girls volleyball coach at an elite Brooklyn private school was busted after her smooching sessions left a 14-year-old player with a telltale hickey, authorities said yesterday.

The Poly Prep Country Day School student confessed to the affair with coach Lisa Guttilla, 37, after her mother demanded to know who left the love bite on her neck.

Guttilla, who worked part time at Poly Prep, engaged in sexual conduct with the victim on at least three occasions, authorities said.

She is charged with misdemeanor sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of child.

If you know you're committing a sex crime, why would you leave a hickey on the girl's neck?

(Why not just film your smooching sessions and post them on the internet?)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Sociopath alert: Raynella Dossett Leath

Sometimes you read about someone and are left wondering whether the person is a sociopath. And sometimes there's no doubt.

The article in the NY Times yesterday about Raynella Dossett Leath was one of the latter. You wouldn't know from the picture that she was a cold-blooded killer, but that's the way it usually is with sociopaths. Raynella bears a slight resemblance to Glenn Close (who, come to think of it, played a pretty scary sociopath herself in Fatal Attraction). She also has that generic middle school principal look that women tend to get if they're ever so slightly masculine, well dressed, and cut their hair short when they reach middle age.

Leath is accused of murdering both her husbands. It's pretty clear she is guilty on both counts.

In 1992, Leath's first husband, Knoxville District Attorney Ed Dossett was killed by what was supposedly a domestic cattle stampede. According to Raynella, Dossett, who was terminally ill with cancer at the time, had asked to be taken to see his dairy cows in his wheelchair. Then somehow his wheelchair got overturned in the midst of the cattle pen and he was trampled. The autopsy showed traumatic injuries consistent with hooves. But the coroner said those injuries weren't life-threatening, and that Dossett had so much morphine in his system that it would have been impossible for him to function. Speculation arose that Raynella may have killed him in order to commit insurance fraud, though she wasn't prosecuted at the time.

Three years after Mr. Dossett's death, Raynella found out that he may have had another son with a woman who worked in his office. The Times account:

In the midst of a divorce, the woman told her husband, Steve Walker, that one of their two sons was actually fathered by Mr. Dossett and he told Ms. Dossett Leath. Ms. Dossett Leath soon lured Mr.Walker to a barn on her farm, telling him she had found some papers related to the child. Once there, she opened fire on him, according to his account, and chased him across the hayfields until she ran out of ammunition. According to Mr. Walker's statement to the police, she said she would kill him and the child's mother, and raise the child herself. Ms. Dossett Leath was charged with attempted murder, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and did six years of "diversion," a form of probation. Then, the charge was expunged.

Raynella's second husband, David Leath, whom she had married six months after Dossett's death, was found dead of a gunshot wound in his own bed in 2003. Raynella said it was a suicide, but eventually she was charged with murder. Firearms experts have testified that of the three shots fired from the gun which killed Mr. Leath, it was the second one which killed him. The first trial ended in a hung jury (because of one dissenting juror) earlier this year, and the second trial has just started. (Her trial for the murder of her first husband, which she has recently been charged with, is slated to start in August.)

Women who are multiple murderers are generally just sociopaths who kill for financial reasons. Serial killers, who are almost exclusively men, usually have a sexual motivation for their crimes. (In the world of a sociopath, your life is worth less than his orgasm.) Women don't kill for sexual reasons. (Vive la difference!)

The closest thing this country has had to a female serial killer was Aileen Wuornos, who was executed in Florida in 2002. She was a prostitute who shot her customers so she could rob them. Most male serial killers don't shoot their victims; they prefer a much more hands on method, like strangling, or knifing, or possibly bludgeoning. There is much more sensual pleasure to be derived from watching (and feeling) someone die slowly, up close, than from shooting someone from a distance. There have been serial killers who have shot their victims, such as the Beltway Snipers; but they are the exception.

But just because Raynella didn't get a sexual thrill from killing doesn't mean that she was any less of a sociopath.

To me, the most interesting thing about sociopaths is what made them turn out that way. What were their parents like? Did they even know their parents? Exactly how were they abused when young? There is often an appalling story there. I'm guessing that one of the formative influences in Ms. Dossett Leath's life was a father disappointed that she wasn't a boy. Raynell is not a common name, at least among whites, but I have heard it before. I've never heard of a Raynella though, and I'm guessing that whoever named her had wanted a boy he could have named Raynell.

Raynella's lawyer, James Bell, claims that Raynella loved her husband (Mr. Leath) and couldn't possibly have killed him: "If you believe Miss Raynella murdered him, you have to believe she is nothing but a serpent of Satan."

That's a pretty good description of a sociopath. (It also makes it sound as if Raynella is even lying to her lawyer, the kind of thing you would expect a habitually dishonest sociopath to do.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Goldman Sachs announces yearly profit

Goldman just announced this morning that they made $13.4 billion in profits for the year.

That would cover the $12.9 billion the government handed them to cover their AIG losses quite neatly.

It's payback time. Or else it's torches and pitchforks time.

Obama is fighting an uphill battle on health care, but he certainly has populist sentiment on his side when it comes to Wall Street.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Barack Obama hands Scott Brown a gift

(Right, Martha Coakley; below, Scott Brown)

The Massachusetts Senatorial race is getting downright exciting.

A friend sent the following link, a site which where you can make bets regarding upcoming events:

The odds are now 55-45 favoring Republican Scott Brown over Democrat Martha Coakley. (Those are the betting odds, not the respective percentiles of voters favoring each candidate, which are much closer.)

And this in a notoriously liberal state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans three to one.

One can't help but think that this most recent groundswell of support for a Republican was due to Obama's latest backroom deal, whereby he exempted the unions and government employees from the "Cadillac tax" which taxes particularly lavish employer-provided health plans.

The unions, of course, were large contributors to the Obama campaign in '08. And government employees mostly vote Democrat.

One also can't help but think of Abraham Lincoln's dictum: "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

If Massachusetts -- a state with a particularly large contingent of those referred to in the middle part of the dictum -- elects Brown, it will be an incredibly strong statement about how fed up the electorate is with the policies of the Obama administration. If the race is even close, that would be a strong statement.

Exactly how would the mainstream media play this one down?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Me Talk Pretty One Day"

Just finished David Sedaris' book, a series of vignettes connected only by his brand of wit. He certainly has the two most vital qualities for a humorist: an unflinchingly, brutal honesty, and common sense. The common sense has faltered during various periods in his life, but he always recovers it later, to write about those lapses in amusing fashion.

Sedaris is also a very clever stylist. He introduces us to his homosexuality adeptly: he segues from his elementary school speech therapist who tried to cure him of his lisp to the subject of other boys afflicted by lisps, and how their interests differed from those of the popular kids. At the same time, he is matter of fact about his sexuality, periodically mentioning his boyfriend if he has any connection to the story at hand. Sedaris never delves into the politics of gayness; I don't think he even uses the word "gay" once in the entire book. For this I applaud him.

Sedaris has chapters about his father's musical ambitions for his children, his brief flirtation with conceptual art, his foul-tongued brother, various pets his family had, a cruel French teacher, crossword puzzles, the boorishness of American tourists, and Paris. He manages to make it all funny. He constructs an entire chapter about an incident where he went to the bathroom at a dinner party only to discover a huge turd in the toilet, and his frenzied -- and initially unsuccessful -- efforts to get rid of it lest someone think it his. He even manages to make this entertaining.

His humor is always insightful, though never particularly deep. It is also unmistakably fey. In his chapter on the unexpected turd ("Big Boy"), he writes, "By now the other guests were probably thinking I was the type of person who uses dinner parties as an opportunity to defecate and catch up on my reading."

Somehow I just can't see Ernest Hemingway having written that line.

(And it is to Hemingway's discredit that he would not have.)

The first paragraph in Sedaris's chapter on crosswords: "When asked, 'What do we need to learn this for?' any high school teacher can confidently answer that, regardless of the subject, the knowledge will come in handy once the student hits middle age and starts working crossword puzzles in order to stave off the terrible loneliness. Because it's true. Latin, geography, the gods of ancient Greece and Rome: unless you know these things, you'll be limited to doing the puzzles in People magazine, where the clues read, 'Movie title, Gone ____ the Wind' and 'It holds up your pants.' It's not such a terrible place to start, but the joy of accomplishment wears off fairly quickly."

I don't think the book is quite as great as the blurbs on the back cover would have you believe (no book is ever that good). For one thing, it has no unifying theme. Of course, that also makes it great for those of us who have ADD, or even situational ADD -- for instance, if we're on an airplane, unable to keep our train of thought due to turbulence but wanting to be distracted in between the bouts of choppiness.

I'll probably get another of his books for the return flight.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Not cool

After visiting the doctor recently I realized -- too late -- that this doctor's definition of a cool guy must be someone who can have his prostate checked and then not make a joke about it afterward.

What possible variant of any joke could I have conceivably made that he hadn't heard before?

I'm an idiot.

The bank tax

There's been a lot of publicity recently about Obama's proposal for a tax on banks which received government aid last year.

He'd certainly have the wind at his back given the widespread populist outrage over the huge bonuses on Wall Street this year.

But since the banks which borrowed money have all paid it back, the proposed excise tax reeks of a "windfall profits" tax similar to the one proposed for oil companies back when the price of oil skyrocketed. And you shouldn't penalize a company merely for being successful.

What the government should do is merely ask the banks which benefited from the AIG bailout to pay that money back to the government. They would get more money ($12.9 billion from Goldman alone) than they would from an excise tax. This would be far more defensible (the banks which took on bad counterparty risk with AIG should never have been recompensed for their bets by the taxpayers). It would abolish the essential unfairness of a tax which was levied merely to get more money from successful companies. And it would quell populist anger (if Goldman had to recompense the government for its AIG payout, those humongous bonuses would be cut back to less outrage-inducing proportions).

Whether the government should be in the business of saving banks it considers to big to fail is debatable. But it should definitely not be in the business of making good on the banks' bad bets so that the banks can then hand out record bonuses to their employees.

The government could impose this payback with the caveat that if AIG ever regains its feet, it could then pay back the banks which had to pay for its failure -- after it pays back the government. (This won't be happening anytime soon.)

This would be fair, and that's all the public really wants.

Definition of a phobia

I flew to Los Angeles yesterday.

The first half of the trip was uneventful, but during the second half the plane hit some turbulence. When the captain told us to fasten our seat belts because of "a little chop ahead," I got a feeling of dread, and when the plane started to shake, my palms got sweaty.

I've been in worse. And when I looked around at my fellow passengers, none seemed concerned. They were engrossed in the movie, or reading, or sleeping.

Nonetheless, I found myself wondering, would I rather be on a plane trip where nothing happens other than some turbulence, or be in a car accident at, say, 35 miles per hour?

I actually decided I'd rather be in the car accident. Afterward I'd be more angry, as there would be financial consequences, but at least I wouldn't have to experience that crippling fear.

Umar and friends haven't exactly helped cure me of this phobia.

Not looking forward to the return flight on Monday.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Harry strikes again

(President Obama being congratulated by Senate majority leader Harry Reid on his Negro-dialect-free articulation)

Parts of a new book by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, "Game Change," were excerpted recently on The Atlantic's website. The section which has received the most attention quotes Harry Reid as saying early in the 2008 campaign that the country was ready for a "light-skinned" black man "with no discernable Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one," as President.

Reid, despite the truth of his statement, has since phoned Obama to apologize, and Obama issued the following statement: "I accepted Harry's apology without question because I've known him for years. I've seen the passionate leadership he's shown on issues of social justice, and I know what's in his heart."

Whether you regard Obama's comments as graciousness personified or merely as damage control for a political ally depends on your point of view.

Reid's comments echo those of Joe Biden from three years ago, when Biden told the New York Observer that Obama was "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

(Thank goodness Obama is clean, otherwise Biden would have to hold his nose during all those White House strategy sessions.)

Reid's comments also bring to mind an incident that took place when Obama vacated his U.S. Senate seat to become President. Reid sent then-Governor Rod Blagojevich a list of acceptable, and unacceptable candidates for him to appoint. The four unacceptable candidates were all black men; the three acceptable candidates were all white women. (Blagojevich ignored Reid's advice, and appointed Roland Burris, a black man, to the seat.)

That incident blew over with nary a peep from the media. Will this one?

And what would happen had a Republican politician uttered those words, including the now long-since politically incorrect term "Negro"? Would Obama have accepted his apology so graciously? Would the media have let it disappear down the memory hole? Would he have had to resign his position as majority leader, as Trent Lott had to after his comment at Strom Thurmond's retirement party?

Polls indicate that Reid will probably be voted out by the residents of Nevada at the next election cycle. But what will happen to him in the meantime?

Stay tuned.

Or rather, don't bother, since it's almost certain that nothing will happen to him.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano, our Secretary of Homeland Security, recently achieved a peculiar sort of infamy by stating that "the system worked" after Umar Abdulmutallab almost blew up an airliner above Detroit on Christmas Day. When asked more recently for the most stunning finding after a review of security errors, she replied, "the determination of al Qaeda."

If she's stunned by that, whom has she been focusing her antiterrorism efforts on?

Oh, that's right. Back in April, Napolitano had said that one of the top threats to national security were the returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, who might be susceptible to "right wing extremism." (Did Napolitano ever put her life on the line for her country?)

Whenever I see a picture of Napolitano, I always get a slight sense of deja vu. The other day, it hit me where I've seen her before.

She is basically every middle school principal across the country.

The resemblance is more than physical. Napolitano is not particularly smart or insightful, but she's not really dumb, either. She may not do the right thing -- for instance, when it comes to preventing terrorism -- but she has avoided the early missteps which might have derailed her career. She's certainly not the type to blurt out a politically inconvenient truth. She speaks in pc cliches, and even worse, seems to think in them as well.

She obviously knows how to curry favor with the right people, otherwise she would never have become Governor of Arizona. And she would never have achieved that, or her current position, without being assertive and power-hungry as well. She has undoubtedly had a career full of taking all the credit and none of the blame. And like most middle school principals, she is probably a stickler for the rules -- for other people.

Napolitano seems to have no passions other than her career. The "personal" section of her Wikipedia entry is almost comical. There are two lines, stating that she is unmarried and is a basketball fan and plays tennis. (Any guesses as to whether she follows the WNBA or the NBA?) She also enjoys whitewater rafting and hiking.

Napolitano has obviously decided not to come out as a lesbian because it might impinge on her career. Being gay is hardly the stigma it once was, and it's not as if Napolitano is fooling anyone. But her decision typifies her non-risk-taking, bland persona. Not exactly the profile of a bold, original thinker who's going to outmaneuver an amorphous guerilla force like al Qaeda.

My guess is that Napolitano hates and resents men as a class, in part because they never showed any interest in her when she was younger. (My experience has also been that the women who resent men the most are those who basically want to be one.) She would deny this, of course. But I suspect it's there, simmering underneath.

I've known women like this. Whenever they hear of any sort of conflict between a man and a woman, they automatically side with the woman, regardless of fault. Then they lambaste other people for their "prejudice."

Most middle school principals never get put in a goldfish bowl. So the only people who get to see what they're like are the students, parents, and teachers who have to deal with them. Now the entire country is getting to see one, in all her glorious incompetence.

Some of you may remember Michael Phelps' mother Debbie from the Olympics. She bears a strong resemblance to Napolitano, and happens to be a middle school principal. I really don't know much about her other than that her son is an amazing swimmer. But my guess is that she would do as good a job as Secretary of Homeland Security.

As my son said the other day, you could take almost any 25-year-old cop off the street and he'd probably do a better job.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Answer to the previous post's question

In October 2003 I went to watch the world freestyle wrestling championships, held at Madison Square Garden. I don't find wrestling a particularly fun spectator sport. Maybe I don't know enough about it, but watching a couple of guys maneuver around trying to gain a point or two on each other just didn't stir me. I suppose if I understood the sport better, I would appreciate it more, but I don't, so I didn't. I do, however, appreciate the strength, stamina, and skill it takes to reach the top levels of the sport.

I was struck by how hyperandrogenized all the wrestlers looked. They all seemed to have massive jaws, bullet heads, thick necks, and superhumanly powerful bodies. (I've never felt more like a girl in my life.) But even in this crowd, one of the wrestlers stood out: Eldar Kurtanidze, pictured above, from Georgia (the country, not the state). He stood 5' 8" and wrestled at 96 kilograms, or 211 pounds. And if he weighed in at 211 the day before, that means he was probably closer to 225 when he entered the ring. (Later in his career he wrestled at 120 kilos, or 264 pounds.) That's a lot of mass for a guy standing 5' 8". He looked like an immovable squat chunk of hairy gristle. He acted like one, too, winning the gold medal in his weight class.

Anyway, I was reminded of him when writing the previous post about Neanderthals. Kurtanidze fits the description of a Neanderthal almost perfectly. He's not tall, but he has wide shoulders, a deep chest, short upper arms (note the picture on the upper left), massive forearms, a prominent nose, and bony brow ridges (again, more noticeable in the picture on left).

He seems to be one piece of circumstantial evidence that Neanderthal blood still runs through our veins. Or at least his veins.

What happened to the Neanderthals?

(Left, an illustration of Neanderthal man from Cell, Vol. 90, July 11,1997; above, a model head of Neanderthal man created by Maurice Wilson of the Natural History Museum, London.)

The first fairly complete Neanderthal skeleton was found in 1856 in Germany (in the Neandertal Valley, hence their name). Their remains have since been found in caves all over Europe, and as far East as Central Asia.

One of the great unsolved mysteries is why the Neanderthals disappeared roughly 30,000 years ago. Were they killed by marauding Cro Magnons (modern humans)? Did they simply starve because of dwindling resources caused by the encroaching Ice Age? Or did they interbreed with and become absorbed by the Cro Magnons?

The fossil evidence is inconclusive. A cave in Portugal yielded some Cro Magnon skeletons with "Neanderthal traits" from roughly 24,500 years ago; these have been used as proof of the admixture theory. On the other hand, recent mitochondrial DNA studies indicate that Neanderthals were a separate species, and there was no intermixing. (Their mitochondrial DNA does not show up in modern man.) But mitochondrial DNA has a strictly matrilineal descent, and is not conclusive. What scientists are fairly certain of is that Neanderthals and modern humans shared 99.5% of their DNA, the two had a common ancestor, and they probably diverged around 4-500,000 years ago.

The word "Neanderthal" has long been synonymous with brutishness. But the Neanderthals buried their dead and cared for their sick. (Skeletal evidence of Neanderthals with otherwise mortal injuries who survived long after being hurt indicates that the Neanderthals cared for their sick.)

Their skulls -- and therefore cranial capacity -- were as large as ours at birth and larger in adulthood. They were also much stronger than us; this is apparent from their thicker bones and larger muscle attachments. The workers who first dug up the skeleton in the Neandertal Valley first thought they had unearthed the remains of a bear. They averaged around five and a half feet in height, the same as Cro Magnons of the era. They also had wider shoulders, deeper chests, shorter upper arms, and forearm bones which were actually bowed by their forearm muscles.

(In other words, they were incredibly studly, like the fellow at top left.)

Facially, they were distinguished by their prominent brow ridges, recessive chins, and protuberant noses.

I once read that if you had these characteristics, it meant that you might have Neanderthal ancestry. I'd like to believe this is so.

It's interesting to speculate on what the interactions between Neanderthals and Cro Magnon were. Each group undoubtedly regarded the other as supremely ugly and subhuman. Eventually the Cro Magnons triumphed; it is commonly assumed that this was because of superior brainpower. But might it have been a case of the Cro Magnons triumphing because of treachery? Is it possible that they merely had more low animal cunning and were somehow able to trick the more noble (and trusting) Neanderthals?

Sorta like the Cro Magnons vs. the Na'vi in Avatar?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Interest vs. aptitude

As a sports fan it's hard not to notice that there are an awful lot of people go into sports other than the one for which they have the most talent.

Usually, people end up doing the sport they got fixated on as kids. If a young boy sits next to his father watching football every Sunday afternoon, he can't help but get the idea that playing football is the most glorious thing a man can do. And so, whatever his genetic destiny, that's the sport he'll pursue.

Or if he had fun playing sandlot baseball as a kid, he might end up doing that.

But as often as not, we're not built for the sports we participate in. Many, many children train for sports which they have absolutely no chance to be great at, no matter how dedicated and tough they are, because they simply don't have the build for it. Coaches like to talk about how it's not so much the size of the dog in the fight as the size of the fight in the dog, but the fact is, you don't see a lot of NFL players who are 5'11" and 150 pounds.

Every child who is moderately tall is told that he should play basketball. So he dutifully goes out for the team, and may or may not be good enough to make his high school varsity. But the average 6' 3" player who actually is good enough for his high school team probably still isn't good enough to make his college team, and certainly isn't good enough to make it to the NBA. But a lot of those kids who are merely decent basketball players could have been great swimmers.

I swam with a college kid the other day who would have been an absolutely outstanding wrestler. This kid is around 5' 5", weighs 160, and is built like a cartoon superhero. But in swimming, he is fighting his height.

There are lots of kids who play football who could have been great at another sport. Most of them simply aren't quite big and strong enough to play for a major college team, let alone in the NFL. But a lot of them are natural athletes who could have been great at rowing, lacrosse, wrestling, track, or any number of other sports.

Part of the problem is that so many kids want to be great at the glory sports: football and basketball. These are the prestige sports at most high schools. When you think BMOC, you tend to think of the star quarterback. And, the fact is, the head cheerleader is more likely to go for the star quarterback than she is for the star runner on the boys' cross country team. But who has more status, a second string lineman or a star runner? And more importantly, whose athletic skills will better help him get into college?

The East Germans are rightly condemned for the way they took children away from their parents and put them in sports schools, then fed them steroids. But they had one thing right: they would test the children at age eight or ten and then steer them toward the sport for which they had the most talent.

Parents should do the same (subtly). If your spindly little boy shows an aptitude for distance running, but all his friends play football, take him to a big time track meet so he can see all the people cheering for the guy who wins the mile. Turn on the TV when a track meet is on. Buy him a copy of "The Jim Ryun Story."

If a child ends up in a sport at which he's not great, it's certainly not a tragedy. He can still become fit, make friends, and enjoy himself. But if he has a choice between being good at something or being great at something else, why not try for the latter?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Machismo personified

A few days ago I noticed that my 18-year-old son's facial hair isn't as thick as mine. I took the opportunity -- as any good father would -- to point out to him that I have more testosterone than he does.

"Johnny," I explained to him. "All that testosterone coursing through my veins is why I have better muscle definition. It's why I can do more pull-ups. And it's why I have violence in my soul. You should consider yourself lucky, actually, that you don't get all those violent urges that I do."

Without missing a beat, Johnny replied, very dryly, "Yeah, I've noticed, Dad. Like when you get those violent urges to go read celebrity gossip. Or maybe watch the Sound of Music. And sometimes you get so violent you have to rush out to actually buy the CD of a musical."

(I'm guilty of all those things.)

The truth is, my son is more masculine than me, so whenever I notice something indicating otherwise, I feel obliged to point it out.