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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

"Profiting from the misery of others"

Much of the country seemed transfixed by the Goldman Sachs hearings in Congress yesterday. 

The government should never have paid off on Goldman's bad AIG bets, especially at one hundred cents on the dollar. And it's ludicrous that it is allowed to call itself a bank and borrow money from the US government at the Fed Funds rate. But for Senator Carl Levin and his cronies to pontificate about how Goldman has made money profiting from "the misery of America's homeowners" shows a lack of understanding of the financial markets work. 

Every trade has both a buyer and seller, and one will eventually profit at the other's expense. This is simply the way free markets work. Any short seller in stocks is hoping that the price will go down. This mean he hopes to profit at the expense of all those who own the stock, be they tycoons, pension funds, or widows and orphans. 

The futures markets, which are merely derivatives on underlying commodities, is a pure zero sum game. If someone sells a grain contract on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and profits because the cost of grain sinks, it could be said that he is "making money off the misery of the poor farmers." Likewise, if someone goes long the contract and the price of grain goes up, it might be said that he is he "is profiting from the misery of the poor, who must now pay more for their very food." Yet no one has suggested that the futures markets, which can help both farmers and food refiners hedge their bets, be abolished. 

Options are another zero sum game. One's person's gain is another's loss, yet no one has suggested that these be abolished either. 

The specific charge the SEC leveled at Goldman was that it misled its investors about the nature of their investments. They said that Goldman did not inform its investors that John Paulson had a say in designing the synthetic CDOs which it marketed. The merits of these charges have yet to be determined. 

But much of the other pontificating from Levin and his cronies is simply naive. And given the large role that Congress played in encouraging the kinds of irresponsible no-money-down mortgages which helped caused the financial crisis, it is hypocritical as well. 

Are the Senators really this obtuse? Or are they cynically grandstanding and blaming a convenient scapegoat to deflect attention from their own role in the crisis, and also fuel public support for their financial regulation bill while they're at it?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


An AP headline this morning read:

"Goldman CEO, 'Fabulous Fab' facing Congress."

Senior Partner Lloyd Blankfein and VP Fabrice Tourre, who marketed mortgage bonds allegedly designed to go down in price, are to testify in front of Congress today.

Tourre evidently earned that nickname because of an email he sent to a girlfriend back in 2007. Imagine the scene: he's at his desk during a lull period, and naturally enough, his thoughts turn to his girlfriend, and how he'd like to be with her. Once in that playful frame of mind, he emails her and kiddingly refers to himself as "Fabulous Fab," never dreaming that anybody but her will ever see the missive.

Now that he is being called onto the biggest carpet there is, do you think he might possibly regret that momentary lapse?

Ocean power

My daughter recently showed me a picture of a soccer ball which stores energy. Evidently after a game or two it can store up enough energy to power up a cell phone.

If they can harness the power stored in a soccer ball, why can't they somehow harness the power of the oceans? Waves and currents generate a tremendous amount of force -- far more than a bunch of kids kicking a soccer ball around -- but you always read that there are problems associated with it.

One easier solution would be to harness the power of waterfalls. People have been doing that ever since textile mills situated themselves next to waterfalls in the eighteenth century. People might find the idea of a Niagara Falls festooned with little hydroelectric contraptions less than ideal aesthetically, but they would generate a tremendous amount of power. And hydroelectric dams are certainly less unsightly than wind turbines. Perhaps we could exempt a few of the more scenic waterfalls, but harnessing a lot of the smaller ones would certainly be cleaner than burning coal. Gravity is powerful, and it's free as well as clean.

If we can't harness the power of the ocean because of its shifting currents, we should do more to take advantage of rivers, which flow only one way. Why not place a few turbines along the banks of large rivers? One would think the mighty Mississippi could light up most of Illinois. If permanent structures seem too much of a blight, then floating barges which could be anchored could be constructed so as to have water wheels on the bottom which could convert the power of the current into electric energy. And these floating barges could be turned around so as to take advantage of shifting tides at, say, the Mississippi Delta. Plus a floating barge would solve the problem of transporting the energy. They could be situated close to power stations and thus require minimal transport; and they could be moved among different power stations as required.

Floating barges would seem a good solution to the problem of harnessing the ocean's currents. A floating barge would be able to be anchored to the bottom of the ocean (in relatively shallow water) and could turn in any direction as necessary in order to adapt to the shifting currents and tides.

Calling all scientists and engineers.

Chances are I don't know what I'm talking about here. But it seems worth a try.

Friday, April 23, 2010


I had occasion to shake hands with an 18-year-old the other day, and was a bit thrown by what he did. Before I could move in for the regular handshake, he grabbed the tips of my fingers with his, and then sort of raised my hand and then threw it down. It wasn't a limp fish handshake, merely a different style of shaking. I asked my daughter about it later, and she told me that that was just the way young people shake hands these days.

This was a perfectly polite kid who meant no disrespect. But it reminded me of many previous such transactions. Whenever someone gives me anything other than the standard old-fashioned handshake, and I go along with it, it makes me feel a little phony. This time it made me feel a little as if I were trying to come across as younger than I am.

Last summer a friend held out his hand to give me the fist bump, which is more a black thing than a white thing. This friend is very cool, despite which he does have a tendency to be slightly trendy. In any case, it would have been rude not to go along with it, so I fist bumped him back. But it left me with the feeling that I was trying to convey the message that I was down with the bruthas. The bump left me wanting to cry out, "Hey, I'm against affirmative action!"

I used to have the same feeling when people would give me the thumbs-high-and-around soul shake. I was never quite forceful enough to try to wrestle their hand back down into the normal traditional handshake, and left me feeling as if I were trying a little too hard to pose as a hipster.

Maybe from now on I'll just wrestle their hand back into normal handshake position. With a young person I'll quickly reach all the way in and grasp their hand in the old-fashioned way. And if someone offers his fist for a bump I'll put my hand around his fist and shake it.

That will be much better, as it will leave the other party feeling lame and out of place.

Whom would you appoint as President?

My son asked me an interesting question the other day: if you could appoint anyone you wanted as President, who would it be?

My son said he'd like to see Clint Eastwood as President. I have to agree with this choice. Eastwood may have been a wooden actor, but he has turned out to be one of our great directors. No one could have directed Unforgiven and Flags of our Fathers and Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima without being very sensitive as well as intelligent. Yet Eastwood combines this exquisite sensitivity with toughness. He survived a plane crash while in the army and when Spike Lee accused him of racism for not having cast more black actors in Flags of our Fathers, Eastwood, instead of mealy mouthing it, gave Lee the putdown he deserved. Eastwood is a little old now, but twenty years ago his extraordinary good looks would have given him a huge advantage with the electorate. Instead of becoming the (Republican) Mayor of Carmel, he should have been the President.

My son also said he would have liked to have seen Pat Tillman as President. He knows nothing of what Tillman's political views were; this choice was more a matter of just thinking what an attractive candidate Tillman would have made. A ruggedly good-looking former professional athlete who gave it all up to fight for his country as an Army Ranger? That's a hard combo to beat. Tillman probably could have supported reparations for slavery and still retained the white vote.

(My son's choices were not necessarily entirely serious. He has said, in the past, "As long as we're going to have a black President, why did we have to get someone boring like Obama? Why couldn't we get someone exciting, like Mike Tyson -- or maybe MC Hammer?")

My personal choices would include Pat Buchanan, Tom Wolfe, Warren Buffett, Camille Paglia, and my brother-in-law.

Buchanan is one of the most honest, intelligent politicos out there. He worked in the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan White Houses. He currently works as the in-house conservative on MSNBC, an anomalous place for him to end up. He's not afraid to get in a fight (as his early history as a brawler would suggest), but he has no desire to get us embroiled in a war which is not in the best interests of the U.S., as his early opposition to the Iraq war suggests. He's far too bold in tackling politically sensitive topics to get elected, as his 1992 campaign showed. For that very reason, he'd make a great President.

Tom Wolfe is arguably our greatest living writer. He has a keen sense of how social status, machismo, money and ethnicity all interweave and affect each other. He'd probably have no interest in being President, and I'm not even sure he'd make a good one -- he's more a man of words than of action -- but he's certainly nobody's fool. That alone would make him better than our last two Presidents.

Warren Buffett is a liberal, but one with common sense. He showed his liberal bent by supporting Obama's run for the Presidency, and his common sense with his more recent comments about how Obama's policies, especially on health care, have gone too far. Buffett certainly understands economics. He wouldn't be beholden to any campaign contributors, and would be immune to bribery. And if you've ever read his annual reports, you know how witty he is. He'd be an entertaining President as well as one who would know how to spur the economy.

Camille Paglia may seem a strange choice. If you'd ever told me that I would find a lesbian feminist more simpatico than anyone else I'd ever read, I'd have thought you were crazy. But her comments on the current scene (at least the current scene back in the 90's) have been amazingly insightful. The other feminists hate her because she decries their hypocrisy in wanting all the freedoms they do but also wanting extra protection from date rape, sexual harassment, etc. Her take: if you want all the rights of men, then act like them. She also understands and celebrates the irrational emotions extremely well. Camille Paglia for President!

My brother-in-law is not a public figure, but he has long described himself as a conservative populist -- which captures the national mood perfectly right now. He was a Tea Partier (on issues other than immigration) before the party existed. And though he's not liberal, he's no country club Republican either. Having known him for a long time, I can say without any doubt that he is incorruptible -- which is why his own political career was stymied by people and agencies whose pocket he refused to go into. Of the men listed here, he is the only one young enough to be able to actually do the job. Unfortunately, I don't have the power to assign the Presidency.

Whom would you choose as President?

Avatar burnout

A few short months after having broken all box office records, Avatar seems to have not really penetrated the popular culture. Maybe it's in temporary remission because it got so much publicity during its run. And maybe our collective ADD (caused by media oversaturation) has allowed it -- along with so much else -- to disappear down the memory hole.

After the original Godfather, people joked (lamely) about offers that couldn't be refused for a full year afterward. After Star Wars, "May the Force be with you" entered the nerd lexicon. After Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio became a teen idol for at least a couple years. After Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts became a huge star. But Avatar hasn't made a star out of anybody. Zoe Saldana's stock has risen a bit, but it would have been hard for her to become a megastar since her actual face was never shown in the movie. And what have we heard of Sam Worthington since? Nothing.

Perhaps more to the point, you never hear anybody quote the movie's mostly forgettable dialogue.

You'd think somebody might at least make reference to the movie's star attraction, Pandora. But nobody does (other than me, in the previous post).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

My next vacation....

Still on the current vacation (see two posts ago), which hasn't gotten any better. So I've started planning my next vacation. It's going to go something like this:

When I go snorkeling in the crystal clear waters (not like the chalky waters here) I'll see lots of fish I've never seen before -- sort of like the kind you'd imagine they have in the seas of Pandora. Then suddenly a school of dolphins will playfully beckon me to take rides with them; on one of the rides I'll get to see a humpback whale up close.

All those bikini-ed women on the beach will keep their tops on. Until they see me. Then they'll take them off -- as they stare at me with a longing, pleading look.

My stomach will completely digest every meal I gorge myself on at the buffet so that I'm actually hungry for the next meal.

Whenever it's time for me to take a workout in the pool, all the little brats on their floats will immediately scoot out of the way. On butterfly day the topless beauties will line the pool and cheer every time when I finish a repeat. Fights will break out about who gets to sit closest to the end where I rest in between repeats. (A few men will stand in the background with an I'd-be-honored-if-you'd-do-my-wife look on their faces.)

Random people will come up to me in the restaurant and ask, "Are you John Craig -- the one who writes that blog? I really, really enjoy it."

My daughter will beg me to play Ping Pong and go snorkeling and just in general spend more time with her. My son will tell me how much he admires me and wants to be like me.

That's not exactly the way this vacation has gone.

My daughter said to me the other day, "Dad, Johnny acts really immature for his age. And you're 55 and you act even more immature than him. You're not even a father. You're more like a brother -- a younger brother. You're such a pest. You have no idea how annoying you are. Just go away."

My son said, "Dad, spending time with you is about as appealing as a blow job from a crocodile." When I laughed, he, high on his own wit, added, "No, maybe from a shark -- with all those rows of teeth" and then laughed in appreciation of his own humor.

I've recently taken to telling them that their insults are just their way of telling me that they love me. (This is in an effort to get them to desist.) They, of course, just groan and say no.

Reality: it almost always sucks.

(Can anyone tell me where I can get tickets to Pandora?)

Addendum, same day: My son just read this and said, "I love the way you criticize me for laughing at my own jokes, as if you never do that Dad."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Straight out of a Bond movie

(above, Vladek Sheybal as Kronsteen, the SPECTRE agent in From Russia With Love; right, Vladimir Putin as Russian Prime Minister)

Actor Vladek Sheybal, according to Wikipedia, "excelled in playing cold, sinister villains." The producers of From Russia with Love were looking for an evil, wily, Slavic-looking actor when they chose Sheybal to play the champion chess player.

Vladimir Putin looks like Kronsteen's more forceful but equally conniving brother. (George W. Bush must have fallen off the wagon that afternoon.) A few quotes to give a sense of Putin's personality:

"Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart. Whoever wants it back has no brain."

(This is an interesting twist on the old saying, "If you weren't liberal when you were young, you have no heart; if you're not conservative when you're old, you have no brain.")

"There is no such thing as a former KGB man."

(Hmm. This, from one who used to work for them.)

"You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place."

[on Moshe Katsav] "He raped ten women. I never expected it from him. He surprised all of us. We all envy him."

(How soon after an American politician said this would he be forced to resign?)

Putin may not be politically correct, but he is certainly a Grandmaster at obtaining and consolidating power.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

In the category of overrated things...

Your intrepid correspondent has traveled all the way to Mexico in order to be able to file this post about it. I am reporting from Club Med Cancun, which is why I'm a bit more prolific (in length if not number of posts) than usual: the alternative to sitting in my room pecking at the keyboard is going to the beach. I've been to too many beaches in my life. You sit on one of those uncomfortable lounge chairs, bake in the sun, get burned, and if you have to use the bathroom you must walk 100 yards or so. If you want to swim, you get sand in your bathing suit. With a little bad luck you get an ear infection, with a lot a jellyfish sting. And if you've seen one tropical fish, you've seen 'em all.

Not even the topless women make it worthwhile. I've often been struck by how unarousing the sight of topless women on a beach is. I can walk by one of them without feeling even the faintest stirring. It's not purely a function of their physical merits; some are good-looking. It's the situation. With all that flesh hanging out in the hot sun, it becomes desexualized. I can certainly recall times when just the glimpse of a breast would make me a little crazy, but here it is simply boring. I know it makes me sound like Cotton Mather, but I'd almost prefer they covered up.

Then again, it may just be that I'm getting old.

Club Med seems to have gotten old, too. Several years ago, when it was still owned by the French, all of the villages were staffed by enthusiastic, good-looking young Europeans who were slumming for a few years. The place had the feel of a European nightclub, throbbing with excitement. Knowing that people are being paid to be nice to me generally makes me uncomfortable, but somehow at Club Med it didn't bother me. The Europeans actually seemed to be enjoying themselves while making sure that all the guest enjoyed themselves too.

These days the company is owned by Americans, and they just hire locals. The Mexicans who work here are perfectly pleasant, but they just can't duplicate the same atmosphere.

Perhaps the worst part of being on a vacation like this is the vaguely disquieting sense that you should be enjoying yourself more than you are. This feeling comes with a slightly guilty aftertaste.

This particular Club Med has crocodiles in the lagoon behind the hotel, and iguanas by the front of the club. Understandably, neither were advertised in the brochure. But both are actually fun to watch. (More so than the topless women, in fact, and you don't even have to pretend not to be looking.) I saw an eight foot crocodile basking on a dry patch of land right next to the hotel. They are magnificent prehistoric beasts, not having changed form in 200 million years.

Club Med, unfortunately, has undergone all too many changes in just the last five years.

Looking forward to getting home.

Mr. Grumpy

Advice to college students

Which professors and speakers are worth listening to?

One clue is how much organized opposition he attracts on campus. Given the liberal lockstep mentality that most professors exhibit these days, there is probably a straight line correlation between how much a professor is ostracized and what an original thinker he is.

Think of the professors who have stirred up the most organized opposition over the years. Arthur Jensen. Camille Paglia. Richard Hernstein. E. O. Wilson. All brilliant, and all worth listening to.

Think of the way Ann Coulter was prevented from speaking when she tried to speak at a Canadian university recently. Love her or hate her, she is witty. I disagree with her stance on Iraq -- she is a hawk -- but I had to laugh when I read her suggestion that all the Iraqis be converted to Christianity when the war ended.

The dirty little secret of these protesters is that they would never get so upset over something which wasn't true. If a proponent of the Flat Earth Society were to come to campus, organized protests would not ensue. Think of the way people are never "offended" by something which isn't true. (Call a brilliant fatso stupid, and it will not bother him; call him a porker, and he will bristle.)

Likewise, smug, conventional thinkers hate it when you question their knee jerk way of thinking.

So here's my advice to college students: if there is a professor on campus who is widely despised and reviled by the majority of professors (for his views, not his personal behavior), take his course. You may not agree with him, but he is at least worth listening to. Likewise, if student protesters succeed in shutting down a guest speaker, make an effort to read his books or other writings.

If, on the other hand, a professor's odious personal behavior is overlooked by the rest of the professoriat because of his politically acceptable views, avoid him. He's got nothing original to say, and you may run afoul of him personally.

A campus is supposed to be a place where civilized discourse and argument takes place among open-minded scholars. (This is only a joke because of the rigidity of the liberal mindset of the campus thought police.)

So follow the trail of the protesters -- then listen closely to whomever they're protesting.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Is college a scam?

My son has recently been saying he thinks college is basically a great big scam. He's basing his opinion on his impression of the teachers at his high school, the type of kids who get good grades, and what he sees of college graduates.

The teachers at Johnny's high school, like most, preach political correctness -- which pretty much equals factual incorrectness. Johnny is very interested in history, and when he discusses it with kids (like his sister) who take AP history courses, it quickly becomes apparent that they have no real grasp of it, and know only what it takes to get good grades. And Johnny has known (or known of) plenty of college grads who spout a lot of nonsense.

It has long been said that the main benefit of an Ivy League education is being able to say that you went there. Going to an Ivy League college doesn't mean you learned anything special while there. It simply means that you are smart enough to have scored well on the SATs and hard working enough to get good enough grades to have gained admission. So when an employer shows preference to someone who went to an exclusive college, he is essentially rewarding that person for having performed well in high school. Employers do need some sort of sieve to distinguish among potential employees, and this is probably not a bad one.

It's also been said that one of the main benefits of going to an exclusive college is that you get to hang out with other smart people. There may be something to this as well.

But this post is about the nature of the actual "education" you get at college. Universities are stocked with professors who will happily teach you such "facts" as, Marxism is good and capitalism is bad. Or that people of color are good and white people are evil -- and that there is no difference between the races when it comes to intelligence. Or that men and women are only different because they are brought up differently. Most importantly, colleges teach you that if you are empirically observant and digress from this thinking, you are a bad person.

Getting a diploma from a liberal arts college is a little like getting your degree from your church, where they taught you that Jesus was immaculately conceived, walked on water, and rose from the dead. Or from your mosque, where the "professors" teach you that seventy-two virgins await you in heaven if you blow yourself up in a crowd of nonbelievers.

It should be said that there is substantial variation between college majors. Someone who goes to college to study engineering, or physics, or applied math actually learns something useful. In general, the further away from the hard sciences one gets -- the more likely one's education is to be a matter of indoctrination rather than actual learning.

At best taking a course in a soft subject teaches you how to toss the bull; but that's for the most part an innate skill rather than a learned one anyway. I majored in psychology, a particularly squishy subject. I took classes in social psychology, Freudian psychology, and the psychology of humor, every last one of them utterly worthless. The same can be said by pretty much anyone who majored in a "soft" subject like sociology or political science. And how much of this can be used on a job anyway?

(The counterargument to this is that one shouldn't be so crass, that much of learning is worthwhile for its own sake. This may be so, but it still doesn't mean one needs to go to college to acquire this knowledge.)

After college, I got an MBA in finance, arguably a harder subject. But I still did almost all my learning for the job on the job. Given which, if you were an employer on, say, Wall Street, and wanted a resourceful, tough employee who could get a job done, whom would you rather hire, a Cornell grad with a degree in anthropology or a Delta Force operator?

It often occurred to me while I was in college that I could just read the books assigned for courses and save my parents a lot of money. To actually listen to some pompous professor drone on about what was in the books was pretty much a waste of money. And time. My parents were paying $6000 a year for my education, at the time a lot of money. For just a couple hundred dollars I could have just read the books, and I probably would have absorbed them better without the distraction of the lectures.

But then I wouldn't have been able to swim on the college team -- an important part of my college education. Or meet all the pretentious idiots I did.

There is another fact that those who put too much stock in a college education tend to ignore, and that is that truly intelligent people never stop learning after college. Those who talk about where they got their "education" are sort of implying that that's where their education stopped. And that they really aren't all that smart.

Another indicator of the value of a college education is the number of kids who go to college to major in drinking beer and partying, with studying a distant minor. Of course, given the nature of what they're taught, they may have right attitude.

Someone ought to open up a college which actually teaches usable real world skills: how to lie convincingly, how to read people, how to manipulate, how to seduce, how to be good at sex, how to fight (lethally), how to structure a prenup, how to invest, how to acquire sensitive information. Such a college would be a tremendous success. It's certainly a safe bet that the students' attention would not waver the way it usually does at most colleges.

Yet another knock against a degree from a fancy college are the skewed entrance requirements. The primacy of athletic ability when it comes to college admissions makes all jocks somewhat suspect. Racial set-asides are even more pernicious. The first thought most whites or Asians have when meeting a black who has a fancy college degree is, aha, affirmative action. The black may be smarter than them, but that makes no difference: the same conclusion will be reached.

Older men used to say they went to the college of hard knocks; it was actually a cliche around forty years ago, though you don't hear it anymore. I used to dismiss this as a lame excuse for not having gone to college. But the older I get, the more I realize, that college is just as good as any other. (On the other hand, having attended that particular institution is no guarantee of intelligence either.)

I actually went to college with the vague idea that it would actually somehow make me smarter. My son is far wiser than I was at the same age.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Vladimir Putin

The previous link got me to thinking about Vladimir Putin. He looks very Slavic, with that inherently sly look that Slavs sometimes have. But he seems in many ways the ultimate Mediterranean man, one to whom his personal vitality is everything. Or, if you prefer, a Latin man, the type for whom machismo is all.

Or maybe he's just your average guy, who, given unlimited power, would exercise it to his heart's content and indulge himself in all his macho fantasies.

The series of pictures of Vladimir Putin taken in Siberia which were released a year or so ago were almost comical in what they said about his self-image, but they were impressive nonetheless. They show a powerful man who loves using his power. (Not a bad description of what Putin is and does politically.)

The picture at top right shows Putin breaking a piece of firewood over his knee. (Couldn't he just place one end on a rock and then step on it like the rest of us?)

The next picture, on the left, shows Putin swimming the butterfly in a Siberian river. As a swimming purist, I must confess to a few quibbles with his form. But those aside, the bigger question is if he was really swimming the fly, or just jumping up off the bottom of the river and spreading his arms to make it look as if he were doing so. My guess is the latter. But either way, he certainly gets credit for immersing himself in a Siberian river, which must be icy even at the warmest time of the year.

In the next picture, on the right, Putin is hunting. Hunting with a high-powered rifle is not particularly sportsmanlike. But one does not spend all those years in the KGB acquiring a Grantland Rice-like view of the world.

The next picture shows Putin, shirtless again, fishing rod in hand, in a pose which is almost a parody of an advertisement for a gay porn film. ("Vlad the Impaler and his Rod of Steel"?) Putin almost seems like one of those guys who takes steroids and then uses any excuse to go shirtless. Think of the Siberian climate, and two possibilities come to mind. If it was cold, Putin was braving the chill in a show of vanity. If it was warm, Putin was braving the fierce mosquitoes in an even greater sacrifice for his vanity. Either way, as a very wise man once said, all is....well, you know.

In the final picture, at bottom right, Putin is riding a horse. Shirtless, of course. Vladimir should be careful here, because this is how his spiritual predecessor, Genghis Khan, met his end: from injuries incurred falling off a horse.

These pictures are so extreme as to give the impression that Putin is perhaps overcompensating. But he just married a 24-year-old gymnast, so he seems be indulging himself in the full range of male interests. One suspects it is less a Western-style marriage, and more a traditional one, where the husband's word is law. (In this case, literally.)

Vladimir Putin is definitely old school, from his KGB background to his early participation in judo, the sport of choice for those who like to control other men -- and possibly choke them or break their bones as well.

In America people laughed at him for that series of photos. But the balance of the laughter must emanate from Russia, at us for having elected such simpletons. I wince to think what the reaction in the Kremlin must have been when George W. Bush announced that he had looked into Putin's eyes and seen the soul of a good man. (This is, by the way, perfect proof that one can only judge the intelligence of another up to the level of one's own).

Obama seems to have looked into Putin's eyes, envisioned the former Soviet commissar Putin once was, and figured: hey, he can't be all bad if he was once a Communist.

But Putin is not a communist, merely a realist. (This was probably the case even when he was a nominal communist.) And he is, contrary to our Presidents' thinking, mostly bad.

But he wouldn't mind being called bad nearly so much as he would being called a wimp.

Addendum, same day: my son just read this, and said laughingly, "Yeah, I guess if I had unlimited power and nobody had criticized me for ten years, I'd be a little bit of a prick too."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Excellent editorial on Putin

The best piece I've ever read on Vladimir Putin, by Ralph Peters in this morning's NY Post:

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Heroes (Part III)

This is Navy Seal Michael Murphy, one of two Medal of Honor recipients from the war in Afghanistan. He was killed on June 28, 2005. When his four member Seal team was surrounded by thirty to forty Taliban, Murphy encouraged his team to fight on. When his unit's communicator was killed, Murphy tried to radio for help. Murphy realized that using a radio in the steep terrain they were in was impossible, so, even though he knew this would expose him to direct gunfire, he fought his way into open terrain in order to transmit the call. He succeeded in making the call, then was killed.

In the picture above he looks like a young Zeus. Unfortunately, unlike Zeus, he wasn't immortal.

You probably haven't heard of him. (Neither had I, until recently.) This is mostly because the media prefers to immortalize the likes of Brangelina and Tupac.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Heroes (Part II)

(top left and right, Marine Corporal Jason Dunham; right, and bottom left, Navy Seal Michael Monsoor)

While looking up recent Medal of Honor winners for the previous post, and wondering why these guys never got much publicity, it occurred to me that perhaps somehow they just weren't personally appealing. That's simply not the case. The guys pictured above are two of the four Medal of Honor winners from the Iraq War.

Marine Corporal Jason Dunham, in the picture at top left, looks like a model, or an overgrown choirboy. On the right the choirboy has disappeared and he looks like a rakish hellion. Either way he was better-looking than most of today's movie stars.

Navy Seal Michael Monsoor, on the left, looks exactly like what he was, a tough, elite soldier. On the right he looks like a recruiting poster for the Navy. Or perhaps the guy the Village People had in mind when they sang of wanting to join their fellow man (though he doesn't look as if he would have reciprocated their interest). Again, better-looking than most movie stars.

It's always tragic when a young person is killed. When a noble young person is killed, it is much more tragic. And when that noble young hero also happens to be handsome, well, it seems just a touch more so.

These guys should be household names. In a sense it compounds the tragedy that they're not.


About a decade ago I read an interview with Alex Popov, the Russian swimming champion. At one point the interviewer asked Popov who his favorite film stars were.

Popov replied disgustedly, "That's such an American question to ask. Don't Americans realize that actors are just celluloid heroes? People should look up to someone who actually does something, like me."

He had a point. But when you think about it, sports "heroes" aren't really heroes, either. A hero is someone who makes a personal sacrifice for the greater good, or does something which takes tremendous bravery. Wordnetweb defines it as "A man distinguished by exceptional courage and nobility and strength."

By this definition, any ordinary soldier comes a lot closer to the definition of a hero than any sports star. A soldier puts his very life on the line for the good of his country. Sports are occasionally characterized as ritualized combat, but participating in most sports takes neither nobility nor courage.

So why is it that our social pecking order is set up the way it is? Sports stars and movie stars are lionized, yet soldiers remain anonymous. The only individual soldier (not including high-ranking brass) who has received individual acclaim in the last two decades is Pat Tillman, and that was only because he was a sports star first.

Back during World War II everyone knew who Audie Murphy was; he later played himself in the movie based on his exploits. Where is today's Audie Murphy? There are certainly plenty of candidates.

How many can you name, beside Tillman? Zero?

There is something very wrong with our culture, and our media, when we hear all about Brangelina, and Michael Jackson, but never about any real heroes.

Have you ever heard of Jason Dunham, the Marine Corporal who fought hand to hand with the Iraqis and then threw himself on a hand grenade to protect his fellow Marines?

No, but you've probably heard of Jessica Simpson. And Paris Hilton. And Lindsay Lohan.

Ever hear of Michael Monsoor? He, too, dove on a grenade, to save his fellow Navy Seals in Iraq.

No, but you've probably heard of Roger Federer. And Tiger Woods.

Ever hear of Sergeant First Class Paul R. Smith? He singlehandedly manned a machine gun turret while being attacked from both sides in order to provide cover for some wounded fellow soldiers to be carried out. (Smith was found later with thirteen bullets lodged in his protective vest and one in his brain.)

Well, at least you've heard of Adam Sandler. And Nicolas Cage.

Ever hear of Army Specialist Ross A. McGinnis? He too smothered a hand grenade with his body to save the lives of the other four soldiers in a Humvee.

But you have heard of Donald Trump.

None of this is your fault. The media simply doesn't tell you about the real heroes. They just tell you instead about actors and socialites and sports stars and businessmen.

Sometimes celebrities can be interesting, and talented, and fun to read about. But they're not heroes. The people who actually are heroes, sadly, are almost never celebrated.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The masters record book

If you look though the masters record book in swimming, it's hard not to notice that the guys who hold the world and American records in the younger age groups (through, say, age 45) are all big-time studs. In their prime, they were, at a minimum, NCAA finalist-caliber swimmers.

Once you get past the age of 50, a little bit of room opens up for the geeks and obsessives, guys who weren't world class in college but who just hung on for another 30 or so years and got to the top of their age groups that way.

One of those obsessives -- your not so humble correspondent -- struck this morning. I set the national record for men 55-59 in the 200 yard butterfly with a 2:04.97, breaking the old record of 2:05.59 by Greg Shaw. (Sorry, but I can't set a record and not write about it.)

I wore a Blueseventy, but only beat Shaw's non-tech-suited time by .62 of a second. The Blueseventy is probably not worth a full two seconds for a 200 yard event, but it's definitely worth more than .62 of a second. So Shaw gets the moral victory here.

One of the meet officials noticed that my seed time was close to the record, so right before my race, they announced it as a record attempt over the PA system. When I finished the race, even before I looked up at the scoreboard, I knew I had set the record from the roar that went up. Had I my druthers, I would not have originally wanted the announcer make my attempt public. But as it turned out, I have to admit I'm glad he did.

Given that I would occasionally go 2:03ish when in college, this swim did provide the welcome illusion of youth. It's an illusion quickly shattered by a glance in the mirror, but semi-maintaining that illusion probably does have something to do with why we old folks compete.

Setting the record also allowed me to feel as if I'm tough -- in the over-sheltered, upper-middle-class sense of the term, which doesn't actually mean real toughness (being willing to put oneself in harm's way), but rather translates as "having a bit more stick-to-itiveness than normal."

The last time I set a record, 13 months ago, my daughter said that she actually felt proud of me -- for about ten minutes. When I got home today, I asked her, "How many minutes will you be proud of me today?"

Her reply: "About five seconds. And they're already over."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Reading the obituaries

This post will, I promise, mark the end of this blog's temporary flirtation with the subject of death.

Why read the obituaries?

There's something about reading the obituaries, and seeing someone's life encapsulated in a few paragraphs, that gives you a sense of perspective and makes your own problems seem small. (Is it possible to talk about death without resorting to the hoariest of cliches?)

Reading an obituary can allow you to relive certain eras. It can bring back memories. It can make you ponder how various people have their fifteen minutes, and then fade back into obscurity. It's always a little bittersweet to be reminded of the role of chance and circumstance in one's life. It's near impossible to read a famous person's obituary without hearing about a lucky break they got, as well as perhaps some unlucky ones.

When reading of the death of someone younger than you, there is a mild ghoulish satisfaction to be had in the thought that you have outlived them. On the other hand, most of us know perfectly well that our own deaths will not rate an obituary in the Times, so a vague sense of disgruntlement may also intrude.

The obits can leave you feeling sentimental and philosophical and occasionally even admiring. It's not an altogether unpleasant feeling. Sometimes the obits can even inspire you to want to do something. The feeling usually passes fairly quickly, but at least it's there for a brief while.

Sorta like us.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


The previous post sparked a thought: it's actually a useful exercise for all of us to contemplate what our obituaries might say. Thinking about this can make us take stock, which every now and then is not a bad thing to do.

An easier exercise might be to come up with an appropriate epitaph. (Even this can shock us into some sort of change.) Let's say you have a maximum of fourteen words you are allowed on your gravestone. What would they be?

A few ideas for mine:

"Not nearly as smart as he thought he was."

"Sat behind his computer and watched the world go by."

"He hadn't intended to die like that."

"Another egghead who accomplished nothing of note."

"He always felt that maturity was overrated."

"Didn't really know what he wanted in life; no longer has that problem."

"His children's worst fear was that they would end up like him."

"Worked hard to keep fit; in the end lost the battle."

"Please, please read"

Didn't mean to sound quite so self-pitying; I'm actually having fun with this.

What would your epitaph say?

Kit Horn and California

(Kit Horn; photo courtesy of Tom Keck)

Last Saturday's New York Times ran the obituary of Kit Horn:

"Kit Horn, a skilled surfer whose exploration of new surf spots along the California coast in the 1940s and 1950s -- and later Oahu's famed North Shore -- helped the sport grow from a small subculture to an international pastime, died March 25 at his home in Encinitas, Calif. He was 80....At age 11, Horn began surfing in Santa Monica, when only a few hundred people rode waves in California. With friends...Horn helped cultivate a surfing scene in Southern California, centered in Malibu...'He was a tremendous athlete,' said Peter Cole, whom Horn taught to surf in 1944. 'He was as good a waterman as I have known.'

"Christopher Mason Horn was born Nov. 10, 1929, in Hollywood, Calif. He swam competitively at the University of Southern California. On drives north to visit Cole, who swam at Stanford, Horn discovered and rode waves that might never have been used by surfers. In 1949, he and Cole were among the first to ride Steamer Lane, a big-wave spot off Santa Cruz. After graduating from U.S.C in 1954 with a degree in business and serving two years in the Air Force, Horn began a sales career for chemical companies. But he never abandoned surfing...

"In addition to his wife of 59 years, Horn is survived by two daughters, Pamela Kelso and Lizabeth Lamberty; and two sons, Kirkland and Brit, all of whom live in California. In 1971, Horn moved to northern San Diego County, eventually settling in a house on a bluff above Beacon's Beach in Encinitas. Many of his peers had stopped surfing decades earlier when advances in equipment altered the style of surfing, but Horn continued riding waves at a reef there until becoming ill last summer."

I had never heard of Horn before reading his obituary. But I couldn't help but feel his death was, in a way, a metaphor for the death of the old California, the place which back in the 60's had really seemed like a Golden State.

Back then, California seemed to be on the leading edge of every movement you could think of.

California was Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. It was the whole surfer culture. It was where the Summer of Love took place, in 1967. It was Hollywood, purveyor of all fantasies. It was Venice Beach, with its muscle culture. It was the Santa Clara Swim Club, with Don Schollander and Mark Spitz. It was San Jose State, with Tommie Smith and Lee Evans. It was Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier up near Muroc, in the high desert. It was Topanga Canyon and Malibu and Sunset Boulevard, where the rich and famous played. It was San Simeon, where the really rich played.

The Doors, the Beach Boys, and the Mamas and Papas were all California groups. So were Cream, Buffalo Springfield, Big Brother and the Holding Company (with Janis Joplin), and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. California was where the Fillmore West was, and where the Monterey Pop Festival took place.

California was the Hells Angels and the Devils Disciples. Even Charlie Manson represented a certain California brand of sensationalism. Yes, he was nothing but a stunted little sociopath who had spent over half his life in jail; but the way the media semi-glamorized him, he came across at the time like a demonic cult figure with great personal charisma. He was bad, but in a very California sort of way.

California was also the most physically beautiful part of the country, with the most geographical variety. It had that long coastline, which you could drive the length of. It was Redwood National Forest, Kings Canyon National Park, Death Valley, Half Moon Bay, Monterey, Big Sur, Yosemite, Mt. Shasta, and the Sierras.

The mountains and coastline are still there. But a certain spirit seems to be missing. What you hear from California these days is not the powerful voice of Jim Morrison or the beautiful melodies of the Beach Boys. Instead you hear the whining voices and lies of Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer and Henry Waxman and Dianne Feinstein.

What you hear about California is the busted, ineffective state government. Pension bloat. A state Supreme Court which is rigidly political correct. The Crips and Bloods. Illegal aliens taxing the infrastructure to the breaking point.

The national parks are now used by the Mexican drug gangs to grow marijuana, and they leave their toxic processing chemicals behind. It's virtually impossible to get into Yosemite at peak season. And the freeways, built to accomodate the population in 1945, are always crowded.

(It's even proven too much for The Terminator to handle.)

The culture which produced the Beach Boys is pretty much dead. Those transplanted Dust Bowl Okies, who would go for broke in so many different ways before, now seem just broken. And the original pioneer spirit has either been driven out of the state or cowed into politically correct submission.

California used to lead the country. These days it just seems a reflection of the country's ills.

Kit Horn, rest in peace.

Securing the borders

(Aijalon Mahli Gomes)

The following AP article appeared on Yahoo News this morning:

North Korea sentences US man to 8 years of hard labor

Seoul, South Korea - North Korea has sentenced an American teacher to eight yeas of hard labor and ordered him to pay a $700,000 fine after he crossed illegally into the country - the fourth US citizen to be detained by the isolated regime since last year.

Aijalon Mahli Gomes, of Boston, acknowledged his wrongdoing during his trial at Central Court Tuesday, the North's official Korean Central News Agency said in a brief dispatch on Wednesday.

The North said last month that it arrested Gomes, 30, on Jan. 25 for trespassing after he crossed into the country from China.

Gomes, a graduate of Bowdoin College in Maine, had been teaching English in South Korea and no details had emerged about why he went to the North. However, Jo Sung-rae, a Seoul-based activist, said Gomes may have been inspired by his acquaintance with an American missionary who made a similar trip to the North in December to protest the country's human rights record.

The KCNA report said...."An examination was made of the hostile act committed against the Korean nation and the trespassing on the border of (North Korea) against which an indictment was brought and his guilt was confirmed."

The real indictment, of course, is against the harshness of the North Korean regime, one of the few remaining communist countries in the world.

But on second thought, perhaps we should follow North Korea's lead when it comes to securing our borders. A brief look at the crime statistics for a place like Los Angeles County should be enough to convince anyone that this country would be better off with a bit less "multiculturalism." According to the Los Angeles Times, a full 95% of all warrants for murder in Los Angeles County are for illegal aliens. Los Angeles County's Most Wanted list is 75% aliens.

It is often said that rich people want the illegal aliens here because they do things like pick the crops, but nationally, less than 2% of illegal aliens are picking our crops, whereas 29% are on welfare. And nearly 60% of all occupiers of HUD properties are illegal.

Suddenly eight years of hard labor -- or at least the threat of such -- doesn't seem quite so harsh.

(Perhaps we could show what a superior, enlightened country we are by only imposing a sentence of four years.)

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Allegory in "District 9"

Saw District 9 for the first time last night. It seemed obviously allegorical, so I spent the first half of the movie trying to figure out exactly what it was trying to say. The easy conclusion -- which most reviewers jumped to -- is that since it takes place in South Africa, and "District 9" is an obvious reference to "District 6," a former Soweto encampment, the segregated camp the aliens are interned in must also represent Soweto. And therefore the movie is a political statement about the injustices of the old apartheid system.

I'm not so sure about this, especially after having read a bit about the director afterward.

Neill Blomkamp is originally from South African, so it was just natural that he would set his movie there. When Americans think of South Africa, they think of apartheid; when Blomkamp thinks of it, he just thinks of home. Also, it turns out his family fled the country for Canada in 1997, when he was 17, because of the rising violence. This would certainly have given Blomkamp a more nuanced, realistic view of the country than the typical American gets.

Blomkamp didn't try to make the aliens cute or appealing in the usual ways. Usually when Hollywood wants you to like an alien creature, they anthropomorphize it. The Na'vi from Avatar, for instance, look like tall, slightly feline humans -- except they're better-looking. The aliens in District 9 (see picture above) looked like the monster from Predator. The disparaging term the humans in the movie used for them was "prawns," a reference not to shrimp but to the "Parktown prawn," a species of king cricket considered a huge pest in South Africa.

The aliens' initial behavior is equally repulsive. They fight with each other. They eat unappetizing things (including tins of cat food, which they ingest by putting the containers right into their drooling mouths). The urinate in public. And their voices are extremely harsh and inhuman. None of these actions evoke sympathy.

Yet another strike against the apartheid analogy was that there were as many blacks as whites speaking out in a "prejudiced" way about the aliens. And the casting of this interracial movie didn't follow the usual Hollywood pattern of noble-black-man-saves-the-world-from-evil-whites. The two white villains were the evil father-in-law of the protagonist and a particularly bloodthirsty soldier. But they were balanced by the protagonist, a sympathetic (if somewhat unheroic) white man. There was a black villain as well, the paralyzed Nigerian gang leader who wants to cannibalize the mutated arm of the protagonist in order to obtain alien powers, or ju-ju. (Not the usual Denzel Washington or Will Smith role.) The normal Hollywood math would have required him to be balanced by at least one sympathetic black character, but he wasn't.

(The gang leader is named Obesandjo, which sounds very much like Obasanjo, the recent leader of Nigeria; the film was banned in Nigeria.)

All of this doesn't make it seem as if the aim of the movie was to arouse sympathy for the poor oppressed victims of segregation. Or put it this way: if Blomkamp was trying to deliver an political message, he was doing so with unHollywood-like subtlety.

Eventually, though, we do see an alien with affection for his son, who bears an uncanny resemblance to ET. (If ET grows up to be Predator, then maybe all those government agents were right to try to capture ET so many years ago.)

Finally, the interned aliens -- or at least one alien -- turns out to be more intelligent than the humans, and more technologically advanced. (Does this not stretch the apartheid analogy even further?) This intelligent alien has reassembled stolen computer parts inside his squalid shack in a way that no tenement-dwelling human ever has.

Finally, the white protagonist, a la Avatar, sides with the aliens against the humans. Yet while the Na'vi in Avatar obviously represented Native Americans, the aliens in District 9 seem to represent, well, aliens.

Blomkamp's sympathies are far more complicated than the American reviewing class would have you believe, and that is abundantly apparent if you view the movie with an open mind.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Body language

I know a woman, 45, who has had breast cancer. She is an intelligent and honest woman. One of the things she's been forthright about is her cancer, which occurred four years ago. But whenever she brings up the topic, I've never quite known what to say. Mostly I just stand there, struck dumb -- in both senses of the term.

I spent last weekend at a masters swimming meet, and was chatting with her and another woman, 63, when the 45-year-old mentioned to the other woman that she had had breast cancer. Without missing a beat, the 63-year-old said, "Good for you!"

That comment, at first blush, makes absolutely no sense. But it turned out to be exactly the right thing to say: upon hearing it, the 45-year-old immediately and visibly brightened.

I suppose the comment may have been shorthand for, "Good for you that you beat cancer," and that makes perfect sense. But I think the impact of the older woman's statement came mostly from her body language. She said it unhesitatingly, and in a very encouraging and reassuring tone. With that delivery, she could have said "Garfalagoozygoop" and it probably would have made the younger woman feel better.

Body language is everything.

An aside: I have been referring to the 63-year-old by her age, but she is one of the best-looking women -- of any age -- I've seen recently. (The miracle of masters swimming.) My initial response upon first being introduced to her was just pure physical attraction.

Yes, 63.

Rest assured, her compassionate personality had zero to do with that reaction; I'm far too superficial for that.