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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not a good idea

(Kristopher Rendon and Rob van der Hoek, emerging from Manhattan Criminal Court after getting into a fight with some police officers)

There was an article in the NY Post this morning about a group of young men who work at the Dutch embassy who refused to pay their bar tab in Greenwich Village and subsequently got into a fight with some police officers.

What are people who start a fistfight with police officers thinking? Do they think that afterwards the cop is just going to get up, dust himself off, extend his hand, and say, "Hey, good fight there fella. I have to admit, you got the best of me."

That's not quite the way it works. Even if you were to get a lucky punch in, the officer has a nightstick. And a gun. And, usually, a partner. And if they are in any sort of trouble, they call for backup.

Most cops are decent guys. But every major city is going to have at least a few sociopaths on the payroll; what happens if you happen to meet up with one of them?

My usual reaction when I see a cop car is to feel a slight start, and immediately look at my speedometer to make sure I'm not driving too fast. In fact, before I even check my dashboard, my foot has automatically moved to the brake.

When I actually do get stopped, I'm always respectful. Sometimes I'm a little angry, knowing that I might be about to get a ticket for some relatively innocuous traffic infraction. But that anger never expresses itself in any way other than a sour expression. I have never, and would never, mouth off.

Granted, these Dutch guys were drinking. But that's hardly an excuse. I've been so drunk I couldn't keep my balance. I've been so drunk that I could only remember what happened afterward when others reminded me. Once in high school I got so stoned on marijuana that I looked at someone else's hand and thought it was my own.

But as unhinged as I've gotten, not once has it ever occurred to me that it might be a good idea to attack a police officer.

Time to bring back Prohibition, at least for those too stupid to handle alcohol.

Something to look forward to

From Forbes Magazine (via Guy Davis):

"Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, told Forbes magazine that his Web site is planning to release tens of thousands of documents from a major American financial firm in early 2011."

I fully agree with those who say that PFC Bradley Manning should be prosecuted for treason. And WikiLeaks is an incredibly destructive force, run by a bunch of nihilists who tell themselves that they are doing good but in fact are creating nothing but havoc. 

But this one time, I'll forgive them.

And even though it could conceivably hurt my (tiny) pension, I hope the firm in question is Goldman Sachs. Anything less would feel like a disappointment, as if we weren't really being made privy to the juiciest and most forbidden of secrets at the very center of the financial universe.

An embarrassing vice

(said after standing up): My name is John Craig and I am an online Scrabble-aholic.

If you're an alcoholic, at least you have a grandly exuberant, stylishly wasteful problem (that is, before your life completely falls apart). The same might be said of a cocaine habit. You can even make a post-addiction career out of going around lecturing others about the evils of substance abuse (all the while harboring a fairly obvious nostalgia for your glory days).

But online Scrabble? It's the nerdiest of vices, the kind of thing you indulge in only if you have neither the courage nor style to become addicted to something that makes more of a, well, statement. You just sit in your room by yourself and peck away at the keyboard, always telling yourself that this is the last game. But then, somehow, you always end up clicking on that "play again" button.

It's like being a masturbaholic.

It's just plain embarrassing.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Insider trading

The recent news about the FBI's current crackdown on insider trading brought to mind what happened to a friend several years ago.

My friend was a very aggressive stock trader, and was always margined to the hilt. In the late 1990's and early 2000's he had done extremely well for himself by staying as leveraged as he could. But eventually he got caught in a short squeeze, and lost most of his money. (Though he still remained quite rich by most standards.)

I'm convinced that he got big enough to attract the attention of a hedge fund, which found out that he was leveraged to the hilt and decided to squeeze him. How would they have obtained this information? They would have bribed a back office employee at one of the brokerages where my friend kept his accounts. If they knew that a large investor was 100% leveraged -- and thus would be forced to buy in if a short position went against him -- they would buy the stock, drive it up, and sell it back to him at the higher prices he would be forced to buy in at.

Put yourself in the position of the person providing the information. Let's say you're a back office employee at Goldman Sachs. Your job is to process the traders' transactions, make sure the (mostly electronic) paperwork gets done the right way, the money gets transferred to the right places, margin calls are met, and all the accounts are in order. Your earn $170,000 a year, a good living by most standards, but you keep reading about how many millions the investment bankers and traders at Goldman are making. You can't help but feel like a second class citizen, and also a little resentful.

You're barely making your mortgage payments as it is, your wife is agitating for a nicer car, and you know your income category will make it hard for your three children to get scholarships to college. But you also know that without those scholarships, you'll be working the rest of your life in order to have a decent retirement. 

Along comes a hedge fund guy who phones you at your home and tells you he wants to meet you, and that it could be very profitable for you. You get the feeling that this may not be completely legit, but the thought of extra money is appealing. You meet the guy, and he tells you that all you have to do is give him a little information: which accounts are 100% margined, and which stocks they are short. He says he'll meet you at a bar in Queens, near where you live, that no phone calls will be involved, and that if the information you give him is worthwhile, he'll pay you a percentage of the profits he makes. In cash. And that it could well run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He points out that there will be only two people who know about this arrangement -- you and him -- and that he has as much incentive to keep your arrangement secret as you do.

You think about it. Then you do what most people in your situation would do. You succumb.

I'm quite sure this is what happened to my friend, though I would never be able to prove it. I would also be surprised if this kind of thing does not go on all the time. It's a fairly obvious scam, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who has thought of it.

And employees at non-financial firms who are privy to information about takeovers, or new products, or FDA test results, must be sorely tempted to cash in on that information.

People will do all sorts of things for money, especially if they perceive the risk to be negligible. And hedge funds will do anything for money. Anything at all.

I'm not trying to sound morally superior here. If I were that back office guy, I'd probably do the same.

(Though maybe I'm slightly superior to those hedge fund guys.)

So I'm glad to see them brought in.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Seal training

There were a group of six Navy Seal candidates being trained at my local pool yesterday by a former Marine drill instructor.

They would do calisthenics by the side of the pool while being sprayed with cold water from a hose, then jump into the pool to swim 100 meters, and then run barefoot outside in their wet bathing suits into the 39 degree air to lie down in six inches of 42 degree water in a wading pool for a two minutes. They kept repeating this cycle the entire time I was there, and were still doing it when I left.

All six of the guys looked quite fit, and I didn't hear any of them complain. And these guys are just Seal candidates, who will go to San Diego with a number of similar guys, all of whom will try to make it through Hell Week in order to become Navy Seals. Less than ten percent of them will qualify.

Thank goodness there are guys like these to defend our country.

I'd like to be able to say that when I was young I would have been able to endure that kind of training, and that kind of cold.

As I said: I'd like to be able to say it.

I chatted with a police officer there who was a friend of the drill instructor. Evidently the instructor holds the world record (for heavyweights) for the number of pull-ups done in a 24 hour period: 2101. Those are real pull ups, too: all the way down with no kipping up.

This is not a number I can really relate to.

But neither can I relate to lying in 42 degree water for a couple minutes.

How America reacted

The news of Mohamed Osman Mohamud's attempt to explode a large bomb at a crowded Christmas tree lighting in Portland, Oregon, was all over the internet yesterday, and will be all over the newspapers today. The picture above was featured in all the stories.

Virtually every person who saw the story probably had some version of the following train of thought:

Wow, he's sorta pretty.....He looks a little like David Bowie's wife Imam.....That bomb woulda killed a shitload of people.......Thank God the FBI caught onto him......That guy was a naturalized American citizen, too. We gotta stop letting in all these goddamn terrorists into the country. It's so incredibly stupid not to profile.

Can't say I disagree.

Sociopath alert: Lance Armstrong

The public loves nothing more than a comeback story, and Lance Armstrong's is one of the greatest: he survived testicular, lung, abdomen, and brain cancer, then went on to win the Tour de France a record seven times. Americans have a tendency to confuse victims with heroes, but Armstrong's triumphs have made him both.   

Yet I've long had the impression that he is one of the most contradictory figures on the public scene, with an unblemished public persona which is hugely at odds with his real personality.

People will often excuse the bad behavior of champion athletes by saying, oh, that's just his competitive nature coming out. But it is one thing to be competitive, another to have a narcissistic personality.

Armstrong is evidently happy to hang with famous guys and romance famous women. But when it comes to his family, his fans, and eventually, even his famous girlfriends, they all just become secondary adjuncts to The Lance Show, minor moons orbiting his greatness. Time after time former friends and teammates say that when they were around Lance, they were effectively expected to scrape and bow, and run errands for him.

Only extreme narcissists will try to create a cult of personality around themselves. Armstrong has even named his foundation (Livestrong) partially after himself. (The really greedy narcissists want a reputation for goodness as well as greatness.) And he guards that reputation jealously. Anybody who dares to criticize him in any way immediately becomes his enemy.

As always, the most interesting question is why. Why did Armstrong turn out this way? Wikipedia is usually a reliable source for this type of information, and sure enough, the "Family and Personal Life" section of Armstrong's entry was quite illuminating: 

Armstrong was born to Linda Mooneyham, a secretary, and Eddie Charles Gunderson of Norwegian ancestry, a route manager for The Dallas Morning News. He was named after Lance Retzel, a Dallas Cowboys wide receiver. His father left his mother when Lance was two and has two other children from another relationship. His mother later married Terry Keith Armstrong, a wholesale salesman, who adopted Lance in 1974. Linda has married and divorced three times. Armstrong refuses to meet his birth father and has described Terry Armstrong as deceitful.

There's certainly enough dysfunction there to explain Armstrong's personality. He never really knew his own father, and now refuses to speak to him. His mother has married and divorced three times, an indication that she may not have been that easy to deal with herself. Armstrong even describes his adoptive father as deceitful.

Deceit is something that Armstrong knows well. For years it's been obvious that he's been doping, an allegation he denies. But there are too many people who have leveled that charge at him, people who claim to have actually witnessed him doping, or been asked to store his vials of blood, or even been encouraged to dope themselves by him, for there not to be some fire behind all that smoke.

Armstrong continues to deny all of this. This past summer, while competing in the Tour de France, news emerged that federal subpoenas had been issued in connection with the current investigation, in particular allegations that Armstrong had gotten his teammates to dope as well. Armstrong's response: "As long as I live, I will deny it. There was absolutely no way I forced people, encouraged people, told people, helped people, facilitated. Absolutely not. One hundred percent."

For most people, a simple "No I didn't" would have sufficed. But a certain personality type tends to vehemence. Armstrong's denial is reminiscent of OJ Simpson's murder plea: "I plead absolutely, one hundred percent not guilty." It is also reminiscent of the way Bill Clinton wagged his finger at the assembled reporters and angrily declared, "I did not have sex with that woman!" (As Shakespeare once said, "The [gentleman] doth protest too much.")

It's harder to hold doping against an athlete who competes in a sport notorious for it. But at same time, it makes it all the more unlikely that a clean athlete would be head and shoulders above the others in that same sport. The Tour is the toughest of athletic contests; it has been likened to running a marathon every day for twenty straight days. (One would almost need drugs just to survive it.) 

What is easier to hold against Armstrong is the pristine image he has cultivated, and the vehemence of his denials. Armstrong often refers to the number of doping tests he has passed. But dopers always seem to be a step ahead of the sports police. Michelle Smith always passed her tests (until well after the '96 Olympics). Marion Jones always passed her tests. Barry Bonds always passed his. The long list of athletes who've tested clean despite being dirty makes those results seem somewhat irrelevant.

People who believe in Armstrong attribute his success to his work ethic, and there is no denying that he is an extremely hard worker. But most top level cyclists push their bodies as far as they possibly can while training. What is it that allows one cyclist to train that much harder? Desire may be one factor. But an extraneous source of rejuvenating male hormones could easily be another.

It is mere coincidence that Armstrong once rode for the US Postal team, and thus got government funds, which he certainly didn't need. But that taxpayer money will probably prove Armstrong's downfall: it is what has prompted the current federal grand jury investigation into his drug use and possible fraud.

Lying to a grand jury is a serious crime. Martha Stewart didn't get sent to prison for her insider trading, which was minor; she was sent away for having lied about it to a grand jury. Likewise, Marion Jones wasn't sent away for having juiced, but for having lied about it to a grand jury. The Feds don't like it when you lie to them.

The people who have recently been subpoenaed by the grand jury convened for the Armstrong case must be aware of that. Floyd Landis, the recently disgraced and disqualified Tour winner, has already testified against Armstrong. More recently Greg LeMond, a longtime critic, has been called in. Many of the lesser names will undoubtedly sing when it is their turn to testify. And many of these people, who have been ridden roughshod over by Armstrong in the past, will be only too happy to do so.

FDA criminal investigator Jeff Novitzky, who is in charge of this investigation into possible doping conspiracies in cycling, has a reputation as a pit bull: he is the one who led the BALCO probe. This can only have a further tongue-loosening effect among those he questions.

Armstrong's public image, like Tiger Woods', has been at such a high level for so long that the sound of its crash will reverberate through every publication in the country. But unlike Tiger, Armstrong will be guilty when it comes to his sport, not just sloppy in his personal life. He's undoubtedly got enough money put away to live well for the rest of his life, but he won't be getting the endorsements the way he used to. (Tiger himself may have further to fall should it turn out that his steroid use can be proven as well.)

Sociopaths, when accused of something they are guilty of, react with all the outrage of the unjustly accused innocent; this is exactly how Armstrong has reacted. And it is one thing to dope oneself; it is downright sociopathic to manipulate one's teammates into doing the same. And it is sociopathic to treat those around you as expendable servants. 

(Side note: one thing I've noticed over the years is that a large percentage of sociopaths, at least the Caucasian ones, seem to have thin lips, like Armstrong. I don't know why this would be so, and it's probably just coincidence. But, spurious or not, I have noticed a correlation.)

I have to admit, I've been watching the net close in around Armstrong with some glee. (This is just ordinary schadenfreude, not sociopathy.)

Addendum, 1/20/13: Two more recent posts about Lance's sociopathy, here and here

Monday, November 22, 2010

Non-specious correlation

After spending a couple of days at an alumni reunion of sorts this past weekend, I have come to the following conclusion:

The degree to which an alumnus of an "elite" college feels pride that he went there, the amount of nostalgia he feels for his college years, and the extent to which he regards former enemies as current friends, are all inversely correlated with IQ.

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Study in Sociopathy

The headline and first three paragraphs of a NY Post article from this morning:

Cokehead convicted in Pace student slay

by Laura Italiano

A homeless young cokehead was convicted today of strangling a Pace University honor student two years ago -- a senseless slaying the murderer chalked up to burglary and boredom.

Jeromie Cancel, 24, has told cops he was invited up to Kevin Pravia's Chelsea apartment on a pre-dawn October morning to sell the student $300 in cocaine -- and that he later garroted the sleeping stranger in his bed because he'd had nowhere to go at the moment and nothing better to do.

The drifter druggie even boasted of switching to a one-handed grip on the cord once Pravia stopped struggling -- so that he could smoke a cigarette with his other hand, all the while watching a gory horror flick on the victim's DVD.

Most people couldn't even conceive of having "nothing better to do" as a reason to end a human life. So most people who read the above article will assume that Cancel's offhand explanation must be a coverup for some other, more compelling motivation. But it's not. Every now and then you'll hear of a murderer saying that he killed just because he "just wanted to see what it felt like." For a sociopath, that's actually all it takes.

And only a sociopath would "boast" to the police about how he committed his murder. A sociopath's ego always rages full throttle, regardless of how thin its fuel.

Cancel's desire for a cigarette while he was killing Pravia is reminiscent of Joran van der Sloot's desire for a sandwich right after he killed his victim in Peru:

Most of us, if we ever killed someone, would be be completely overwhelmed by the horror of what we had done: our hearts would be pounding, our minds racing, our senses reeling. But with a sociopath, committing murder doesn't even affect them enough to override their everyday fancies -- like a sponge cake, or a cigarette.

And Cancel didn't even wait until he had finished committing the murder -- he had his smoke while committing it. Then, he was so impressed with his own coolness that he boasted to the police about it.

But even the combination of a murder and a cigarette wasn't enough stimulation for him -- he had to watch a gory horror flick on his victim's DVD at the same time.

That's probably the ultimate metaphor for sociopathy -- smoking a cigarette and watching a movie while committing murder.

After all, murder by itself can be, let's face it, a bit of a yawner.

If New York State delivers appropriate justice, Cancel's cigarette habit will not cut a single minute off his life.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

George Madoff

After seeing these pictures, it's hard not to wonder, if Washington were alive today, would he have been, at the very least, perhaps a tad less willing to admit he chopped down that cherry tree?

And how, for that matter, would Bernie Madoff have done leading the Continental Army? He certainly had the requisite nerve.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Audrey vs. Marilyn

A video of Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany's. As miscast as she was in that movie, it showed her at her most (incredibly) beautiful:

Truman Capote, who wrote the book, said that the part of Holly Golightly (an extroverted prostitute) called for a Marilyn Monroe type, which Hepburn was most definitely not.

Monroe famously sang "Happy Birthday Mr. President" to John F. Kennedy on May 29, 1962. But in fact Kennedy's favorite actress was Hepburn, and she sang "Happy Birthday, Dear Jack" to him exactly a year later, on what would turn out to be his final birthday. (The reason Hepburn's rendition isn't as famous as Monroe's is undoubtedly because it didn't feature the same subtext.)

Monroe, in her own dysfunctional way, was the archetype of a modern movie star: drug-addicted, irresponsible, and incapable of any stable relationships. Hepburn, who devoted the last fifteen years of her life to working for UNICEF, was pretty much the opposite.

Hard to blame Monroe for what she was, though. Read the "Family and Early Life" section of her bio on Wikipedia, upbringings don't come much more unstable than this:

Ooh la la

There is much to be critical of when it comes to Continental culture. But one aspect of it I have never felt particularly critical of is that if European women like the way you look, they will make themselves available for that reason alone.

The United States started out as a Puritan nation, and that tradition has never completely died. The way it expresses itself these days is through political correctness, a type of Puritanism no less silly than the original. One form that correctness takes is in the matter of sexual politics. American women have been brainwashed into thinking they should be the same as men, and must act (somewhat) like men. They have also been taught that a man should "respect" them. But exactly what that "respect" entails is a little fuzzy. So they have all sorts of self-serving rules, like having to have a certain amount of money spent on them first.

Wanting some evidence of commitment is something that evolution has programmed women for, but some of the grounds for winning "respect" are simply silly. ("Honey, you may never have accomplished anything in your life, your IQ may be 95, your thinking may be utterly logic-free, and you may be a spoiled little princess, but I really respect you since you waited until the third date to sleep with me.")

And, when you think about it, judging a man on his money-making ability in fact does connote a distinct lack of self-respect, at least for those women who abjure prostitution.

European women can be as pretentious as anybody, but they don't let politics get in the way of their instincts. If they're attracted, they'll go to bed with you. Period. No "respect" required.

Perhaps for that reason, European women also pay more attention to their appearance. They tend to be thinner. (Of course, that may be partly because they tend to smoke more.) They also tend to be more fashionable; grunge never really caught on over there. 

I've observed these differences (from afar) with women from Belgium, France, the Czech Republic, Romania, Sweden, Holland, Spain, Germany and even a couple of former Soviet Socialist Republics (I'm including first generation Americans from all these countries). My experience is limited, but somehow I doubt the Poles and Danes are all that different.

Europeans also tend to take the boundaries of marriage less seriously. In France, it is simply expected that a married man will have a mistress. And if he does, it is no great cause for scandal. (A Monica-gate would never happen over there because an affair would never be considered a significant transgression.)

Prime Minister Berlusconi used to joke with the Italian press about the man his wife was said to be having an affair with. It's hard to imagine an American President doing this.

Back when I was single, in the early Eighties, I saw a thirtyish woman from France for a few weeks. At one point I asked her how many men she had slept with. She said fifty. Most American women would never admit to that many, even if it were true, so I expressed surprise. She then felt obliged to explain: "You have to remember, I was married for a long time."

Conclusion: the Old World may be more degenerate, but that's why it's more fun.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Robin Hood

The Wikipedia entry on Robin Hood offers a dismayingly complex and inconclusive explanation as to the possible origins of his story. I had looked it up hoping to be able to pick from maybe two or three competing versions of his story, and possibly come to a conclusion based on some little bit of logic that others might have overlooked. But there are a myriad of possibilities as to how the legend originated, and they are all very, very iffy. It's not at all clear whether or not he was based on a real person, or possibly a number of people. It's not even clear exactly when he lived (it could have been either the 12th or 13th centuries). If he existed, he may have been a peasant, and he may have been an artisan. And he may have been loyal to King Richard the Lion-Hearted (and resentful of his brother King John) -- or he may not have been.

Robert was a common name in the early Middle Ages, and Robin was its diminutive. Wood was a common surname, and might easily have been changed to Hood. There are evidently a number of people by that name who fell afoul of the law, although it's not clear that any of them had anything to do with the legend. One possibility is that "Robin Hood" was just a stock alias used by all thieves of the era. And some feel that the legend was based on a famous outlaw who lived in Sherwood forest in the 13th century whose name was Roger Godberd. (There is also a school of thought that Robin Hood was in fact based in Yorkshire rather than Sherwood.)

Given that questions still swirl around Shakespeare's identity -- and he left a discernable paper trail --  it's not surprising that there would be some question about Robin Hood. Unfortunately, there are nothing but questions. (Why did Shakespeare never write a play about Robin Hood, by the way? He does make brief mention of  him in Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

Over time the legend -- and it is an appealing one -- has evolved a bit. In the 14th century Robin Hood was generally depicted as a brigand. By the 15th century people started ascribing noble blood to him, and Friar Tuck came into being. Maid Marian was most likely a later addition to the myth as well.

There is simply too much confusion to be able to even form an opinion.

One intriguing possibility was suggested by Walter Bower, who wrote in 1440: 

"Then [c. 1266] arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads."

Robin Hood as multiple murderer -- and possibly serial killer?  Is it possible we have been celebrating another Ted Bundy all these years?

In any case, we are all familiar with the legend as it has evolved: Robin Hood, together with his friend Little John and their merry band of men, robbed from the rich to give to the poor. His lady love was Maid Marian and his chief adversary was the Sheriff of Nottingham. (Traditionally, most who have robbed from the rich have given to themselves; whether or not there was a Robin Hood who flouted this rule is questionable.)

Since then, every liberal politician has at some point fancied himself a latter day Robin Hood. Back in Robin's day, if indeed he did exist, the peasantry were not allowed to hunt in the king's forest, and if they did, they could have their eyes put out. You were either a noble with inherited lands or you were not, and if you were not, there was simply no way you could advance.

Today, of course, things are much more complex. 

In any case, it would have been more fun if the Wiki account had been more definitive. They chose accuracy and completeness instead, which is, as always, less gratifying.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Can you tell the difference?

Guy Davis pointed this out the other day: at left wing protests, you tend to see a preponderance of professionally made signs which are mass produced and handed out to marchers who are often bused in by union organizers and their like.

At Tea Party rallies, most of the placards you see are homemade.

What does this say about which side is the grass roots movement (and which is the Astroturf)? What does it say about which side has people who can think for themselves?

Vlad, again

The irrepressible Vladimir Putin was in the news again this weekend, this time for racing a Formula One race car at speeds up to 150 miles per hour. (He only spun out once.)

Putin's powerful political position has allowed him to live out his Walter Mitty-ish fantasies to his heart's content. This was alluded to in an earlier post:

It's now gotten far beyond the point where these activities appear to be a pose, calculated to win the respect of the Russian electorate; they now seem an integral part of his self-image.

It has been widely speculated that Putin is planning to run for Russia's Presidency again in 2012.

Perhaps, instead, he should just try out for a job he would undoubtedly prefer: replacing Daniel Craig as the next James Bond.

Then again, if you can actually be James Bond, or even better, his boss, why settle for just playing him?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Haile Gebrselassie

Part of the reason to watch the NY Marathon today was to see Haile Gebrselassie, the greatest distance runner of all time. Gebrselassie has set 26 world records in his career, at distances ranging from 2000 meters to the marathon, which he holds the current record in at 2:03:58. He's won two Olympic gold medals at 10,000 meters, as well as four world championships at that distance.

Gebrselassie has always looked older than he is. At age 37, he now looks a bit grandfatherly. Maybe being that tough ages you prematurely. One of his most impressively tough performances came during the 2004 Olympics, when he was so badly injured that he couldn't even warm up for the 10,000, but still ran the race and finished fifth. Gebrselassie is Ethiopian, but at 5' 5" and with those heavy epicanthic folds and wrinkled forehead he looks a little like a San Bushman of the Kalahari.

Back in the first half of the twentieth century, the Boers, not a group known for their respect for the local indigenous population, reportedly held the Bushmen in very high regard. The Bushmen were legendary trackers, had extraordinary eyesight, and could go on forever, sometimes actually running down their prey. 

Gebrselassie can seemingly go on forever, too. He won his first world championship in 1993, and set his most recent world record, for 30K, in 2009. (His  two marathon records were set in 2007 and 2008.)

Towards the beginning of today's race one of the commentators solemnly intoned, in an effort to build up his hometown race, "If he [Gebrselassie] wins in New York City today, he'll be the greatest ever."

Proof, as if it's needed, that some sporting events are better watched with the mute button activated.

Gebrselassie dropped out of the race today with a bad knee at the sixteen mile mark. But, contrary to what that pompous announcer said, his status as greatest ever has long since been cemented.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Gael

A little while back, in "Pomp and circumstance," I mentioned the theme from Last of the Mohicans. If you haven't seen the movie, it may not have quite the same emotional import for you, but it's still a beautiful piece of music:

Filial respect, Part 1A

In the previous post I described how my son had mocked my narrow readership a few days ago. That wasn't the only insult he hurled my way last week. 

At one point I mentioned to him that there were a couple of jobs I think I'd be good at, and which I'd enjoy, but which I could never get. (Retirement has started to seem like purgatory.) One job would be working for the FBI tracking down and helping convict sociopaths (not necessarily serial killers). Another would be teaching a course on sociopathy at the college level. My son agreed, "Yeah, you'd never be able to get those jobs," then added, "You know what I think you'd be good at? Being a Squeegee guy."

At one point he expressed annoyance that I would write those pieces about basic training, etc, which were essentially pieces about him. He shook his head disgustedly and said, "Telling you something is a little like saying it into a microphone."

"Dad, I care about you about as much as Tyke [our dog] cares about the French stock market."

Once, at the pool, Johnny put his hands on his pectoral muscles and pushed downward, as if to prematurely demonstrate the effect of gravity on an aging body. "Look," he said, "I'm Dad."

And, of course, the old standby: "You can't be my real father. You're too ugly. My real father is Sean Connery."

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Killing Machine

Dolph Lundgren has an impressive resume. He was a European heavyweight champion at karate. He completed his military training at the Swedish Amphibious Ranger School, their equivalent of Navy Seal training. He has a master's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Sydney. And he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study at MIT, though he soon dropped out to pursue acting.

Lundgren was also, back around the time of Rocky IV, better-looking than any of the other action heroes of the day (Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis, Seagal, and Van Damme). He was so good-looking he didn't even really look human. Yet he was also less successful than any of those others. Why? It couldn't have been his lack of acting ability; none of the others could act either.

Perhaps it was his inability, despite the academic credentials, to choose scripts. That doesn't seem to have changed. His latest directorial and acting effort is called Dolph Lundgren is The Killing Machine. Evidently, that is actually the title of the movie, not just the way it's presented on the jacket of this straight-to-DVD effort.

The first clue that something was awry came during the opening credits. The first actor credited was, of course, Lundgren himself, and as his name flashed across the screen a picture of him looking grimly handsome appeared. The second actor credited was Stefanie von Pfetten. But as her name flashed on the screen, so did another picture of Lundgren, looking grimly handsome. And so it went, with each actor's name came another picture of Dolph, looking grimly handsome.

Perhaps a lifetime of having people tell you how handsome you are can skew your perspective.

There is, to be sure, a large audience which cares for action movies. To appreciate this one, you cannot care in the least about plot, character, and dialogue. Early on, Lundgren's somewhat trashy girlfriend is killed, as is his ex-wife's boyfriend. Neither Lundgren nor the ex-wife waste any time mourning, but instead quickly hop into bed with each other.

Lundgren is supposed to be very devoted to his little daughter in this movie. But at one point, he holds her in one arm while shooting at the bad guys with the other. (Wouldn't it have been wiser to set her down before he started attracting enemy gunfire?)

There wasn't a single line in the movie which elicited a chuckle, at least not by design. There also didn't seem to be a single line which wasn't a cliche. Oh well. English is Lundgren's second language.

But all of this is of course merely an excuse to show Lundgren killing a myriad of people, using wide variety of methods. (With all that killing, no wonder the death of his girlfriend didn't affect him.) The bad guys, as is customary in this type of movie, are all extremely tough-looking and also extremely poor shots: their bullets always spray harmlessly around Lundgren but never hit him.

Lundgren is a killing machine, but mostly of decent movie-making; he's not exactly the second coming of that other gloomy Swede, Ingmar Bergman. (On the other hand, he's a lot better-looking.)

Even my son, at whose behest we watched this movie, admitted afterward that he was a little less enamored of Lundgren than he had been before seeing it.

Monday, November 1, 2010


(left, official poster for Hereafter with Cecille de France and Matt Damon; below, Damon with Bryce Dallas Howard)

Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort, Hereafter, is sentimental, touching, predictable, slyly manipulative, and a bit slow.

One of the most reliable tricks in the romance genre is to have the two romantic leads -- whom we just know are going to end up together -- lead separate lives, and keep them apart for a long time. Each will have a romantic red herring who has some disqualifying trait which causes us to root against them ending up with the lead. By the time the two leads finally meet, a moment the audience has veritably been lusting for for the previous hour, there doesn't need to be a lot of interplay. The mere fact they've finally met makes romance seem inevitable, and the movie can end happily at that point. Nora Ephron used this technique to good effect in Sleepless in Seattle.

The twist in Hereafter is that there are three lives and threads for us to follow: the two romantic leads (played by Matt Damon and Cecille de France) and a little boy.

The third lead is a 12-year old Cockney boy. He is supposed to tug at our heartstrings, and he does. The boy has a twin brother, and both try nobly to save their heroin addict mother. How are we not supposed to be affected when one of the twins is killed while returning from the pharmacist after filling a prescription for a methadone-like substance for their mother? That's not even playing fair.

Cecille de France plays a French television journalist who wonders about her near death experience when she is caught in the Indonesian tsunami. Her romantic red herring is her producer, who seems okay at first but turns out to be a tad too slick.

Matt Damon's red herring is played by Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of famous director Ron Howard. Her character is just aggressive and off-kilter enough to make us root against her ending up with Damon. Surprisingly, by Hollywood offspring standards, Howard is quite attractive, in fact more so than de France. This violates yet another Hollywood rule, that the hero must end up with the best-looking woman in the movie. (Quick, name the last movie in which the hero ends up with the less attractive female.)

Damon plays a reluctant psychic. Imagine for a moment what other actors might have done with that part. Jack Nicholson would have gone into convulsions playing the psychic, while making every dead person sound unpleasantly unrepentant. Tom Cruise would have acted as if contacting the dead were a matter of extreme, sweaty intensity -- but would always have emerged afterward with his winning grin intact and a thumbs up sign. Damon, who let himself lapse back into his natural chubbiness for the role, plays the psychic the right way -- abashedly. There are no histrionics, only a semi-apologetic explanation for his gift, or, as he sees it, curse. And while conveying messages from the dead he comes across as a slightly absent-minded guy who is trying to remember something hovering on the edge of his consciousness.

Most of us willingly suspend our disbelief for this kind of movie, which is essentially science fiction. But the characters should remain true to themselves, and there was one false note. Damon's character, George Lonegan, has a personality that is nothing but painfully raw, brutal honesty throughout the first three-quarters of the movie. But towards the end, when the little Cockney boy tells Damon where he can find Cecille de France, Damon suddenly acts like a flustered and embarrassed junior high school student and strenuously denies that he likes her. Silly.

And yes, it is The Man With No Name, the director of Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima who helmed this movie. But don't expect Dirty Harry-style action. The pacing is slow, too much so at times.

Verdict: the movie underscores how great both Eastwood and Damon are, partly because it shows their versatility, but that's not quite enough to make it a great movie. Still worth seeing though, especially if you've always wanted to believe in life after death.

As we were leaving the theater I pointed out to my family that there actually have been numerous reports of people who've had near death experiences, whose hearts had actually briefly stopped beating, and who saw a strange luminous light at the moment of their "death."

My son, who is a huge fan of Eastwood's more action-oriented films, retorted, "Well I almost died of boredom during that movie, and I didn't see any light. I mean, my heart didn't actually stop, but I think it came pretty close. And I didn't see anything like that."