Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Possibly the best family/action/superhero movie of all time? I do think it one of the best action pictures. But this category is not about the best of things, its about my favorite things. So I try to explain why I like it rather than why its good. There will be some entries in Faves: that are, from a critical point of view, crap. This movie is not one of them.
As always with Pixar, the foundation is a first-rate script. But what I absoloutly love about the picture are the visuals. The animation is showy in a big way, but at the same time very subtle. They have chosen certain elements and thrown resources at depicting them in lush, fanatic detail. Hair, for example. Textures of things like clothes, leaves, water and flame. Others elements are purposefully vague. Faces are simplified. Not simplistic or lacking character, just slightly generalized.
The other thing I love is the '60's retro art-direction. I grew up in the '60's, and loved all that stuff at the time. It felt clean and modern and optimistic. This is not pure nostalgia. I remember those couches and tables in places that were otherwise antagonistic, narrow and ugly. There was a lot of kitsch as well, which it is best to conveniently forget. But there's no kitsch in this movie. Just the sleek, stylish progressive side of '60's style.
But at last Dahoum drew me: 'Come and smell the very sweetest scent of all', and we went into the main lodging, to athe gaping window sockets of its eastern face, and there drank with open mouths of the effortless, empty, eddyless wind of the desert, throbbing past. That slow breath had been born somewhere beyond the distant Euphrates and had dragged its way across many days and nights of dead grass, to its first obstacle, the man-made walls of our broken palace. About them it seemed fret and linger, murmuring in baby-spreech. 'This', they told me, 'is the best: it has not taste.' My Arabs were turning their baccks on perfumes and luxuries to choose the things in which mankind had no share or part.
The Seven Pillars of Widsom
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Monday, July 28, 2008
This album blew me away when it came out (1980). That's a while ago now. It still sounds great, and to my ear, not at all dated. The sound itself was a bit of a shock. The Talking Heads started with a very spare new wave sound. But this was dense, layered, thick. Like pop music kidnapped as a baby and raised by anarchists. The lyrics are also terrific. David Byrne laid off the ironic button long enough to actually tell some stories. Stilted nonsensical stories, but stories nevertheless. There was a bit of this on their previous album, but he took it farther here. For example:
He would see faces in movies, on T.V., in magazines, and in books....
He thought that some of these faces might be right for him....And
that through the years, by keeping an ideal facial structure fixed in his
mind....Or somewhere in the back of his mind....That he might, by
force of will, cause his face to approach those of his ideal....The
change would be very subtle....It might take ten years or so....
Gradually his face would change it's shape....A more hooked nose...
Wider, thinner lips....Beady eyes....A larger forehead.
He imagined that this was an ability he shared with most other
people....They had also molded their faces according to some
ideal....Maybe they imagined that their new face would better
suit their personality....Or maybe they imagined that their
personality would be forced to change to fit the new appear-
ance....This is why first impressions are often correct...
Although some people might have made mistakes....They may have
arrived at an appearance that bears no relationship to them....
They may have picked an ideal appearance based on some childish
whim, or momentary impulse....Some may have gotten half-way
there, and then changed their minds.
He wonders if he too might have made a similar mistake.
Seen and Not Seen
I can't find the quote anywhere, but remember Kenneth Clark saying in "Civilization" that the wise historian stops 50 years before his own time. This extraordinary German film about the last days of Adolf Hitler came out 59 years after his death. The film caused a great deal of controversy in Germany because it humanizes Hitler. I believe that humanizing these people is necessary in understanding them and what they did. There was nothing inherently different about Hitler and his cohorts from anyone else then, or now. And that is the essential lesson. The events of the War were not inevitable. Similar crimes could happen again. On a vastly lesser scale, they have happened again.
Anyway, the film has to be judged on its own merits. It's an engrossing experience and an excellent piece of movie making. Hitler entered the bunker below the Reich Chancellery in Berlin in January, 1945. Except for one or two trips outside the door, he never came out again. The movie details his progressive collapse, and that of the regime, through the spring of 1945. Bruno Ganz's incandescent performance as Hitler is the backbone of the film. It is unearthly how close he comes to what I had imagined the real Hitler.
I had the movie for a long time before watching it. It seemed very depressing. With my condition, depressing is not something I need or want more of. Eventually, I did watch it and was floored. I've watched it again several times since. The english commentary by the director is excellent as well. For anyone interested in history, this is a must-see.
I used to work for a car photographer. Taking pictures of cars is quite fascinating and exceedingly hard to do well. This photo is worth noting because of its originality. Blowing out the exposure on 90% of the picture is beyond just breaking the rules. But it works here, particularly if one uses the photo as computer wallpaper. Lots of people (including me) don't like dark wallpaper.
Mercedes is making a big deal of this car. It has its own flash-laden website for those who want to drool. I still like the CLS better.
Current events in physics and cosmology suggest the Universe is a much more vast and mysterious place than could have been imagined 50 years ago. Dark matter has been proven, but not explained. It makes up 22% of the mass in the Universe. Dark energy, which is now known to constitute 73% of the mass in the Universe, is a complete and total mystery. It has yet to be described, let alone explained. To those still awake, that leaves 5% of the total mass in the Universe that can be described and explained by our current science. Even that is only understood in certain ways. When you venture into the world of sub-atomic particles, it is tempting to see matter as fractal. In other words, "turtles all the way down".
I don't usually like to simply re-post something without some value-added commentary, but this is just great as-is. Unfortunately, its probably made up. A quick search of the NYT turns up no matches and Ansett was absorbed by Quantas in 2001.
Update: Checked on snopes. It's a myth. But its a good little story so I will leave it.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
A story in today's New York Times claims: "The militia that was once the biggest defender of poor Shiites in Iraq, the Mahdi Army*, has been profoundly weakened in a number of neighborhoods across Baghdad, in an important, if tentative, milestone for stability in Iraq". They suggest that one of these neighborhoods is Sadr City.
I'm not buying it. Muqtada al-Sadr (known as "Mookie" by US troops) is the master of tactical retreat. He's done it several times before to great effect. The thing about a good tactical retreat in these conditions is that it looks similar to a loss. That's the point. Its an elaborate playing at possum. Of course, tactical retreat does not bring victory. But it can bring survival. And that, in Iraqi politics for 3 generations, has been the name of the game. Al-Sadr survived Saddam, so its not like he's new at this. He's made a career of being underestimated.
Gary Brecher argued in early July that al-Sadr had sensibly gone underground, adopting the successful model of the IRA after the British Army demolished their no-go zones in 1972. The main consideration being that if the US was prepared to use air strikes against Sadr City, the Mahdi Army was doomed in the streets. Best to get off the streets. And now the NY Times is noting their absence as a major development.
More wishful thinking from the US Embassy in Bagdhad I think. Its not outright false propaganda, its just that they continue to percieve the situation in unrealistically positive terms. Conditions continue to improve. Things will go on improving until the day the US Army leaves Iraq. Just as they did in Vietnam. Muqtada al-Sadr will probably still be around to see them off.
*The Mahdi Army is the militia of the Sadr Movement, al-Sadr's political party. It, like Sadr City is named after his father, not him. The other main Shiite party is The Supreme Iraqi Counci (SIIC). Their militia is the Badr Brigades, aka the Iraqi Army. The only other militia worth noting specifically is that of the al-Fadilih party, a strong regional political party in Basra. There are many other smaller and splinter militia, particularly among the Sunni.
Curiously, the SIIC has been mentioned only 17 times in the last year in the NYT. The Badr Brigades only 3 times. The Mahdi Army, by comparison, has been noted 167 times. The NYT has some credibility problems when it comes to Iraq. They have done little to alleviate their humiliation over pre-war reporting of WMD. Its not like they can send reporters freely around in Baghdad. They move only with the assistance of the US and Iraqi armed forces and do not have sufficient independence to reclaim their credibility.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
If blacksmiths had been as well organized and connected as the music industry, horses would still be a common sight and automobiles a tightly controlled rarity.
I don't like Bill C-61 (Canada's proposed new copyright law). Some form of copyright update is certainly due, this bill is entirely the product of lobbying by US multi-nationals and the Bush administration. The bill's shortcomings have been widely condemned. Three things, in particular, have drawn criticism. First, Industry Minister Jim Prentice promised public consultations before a bill was introduced. The only consultations he actually had time for were with the US Ambassador and several content ownership lobbyists. Second, the consumer "rights" introduced in the law are inadequate for the way people use purchased content. Lastly, the "rights" themselves are overruled by any Digital Rights Management (DRM) introduced by the content owners. The anti-circumvention clause makes it lllegal to break DRM, or to posess the tools to break DRM regardless of purpose or intent. So you can enjoy your right to rip a CD for your iPod, as long as the record label doesn't include DRM on the CD to prevent ripping. It is also worth noting that many Canadian artists and artist's associations are against this law. Bill C-61 was formulated to protect the interests of multi-nationals, not artists.
Critics have also pointed at messy clauses that make compliance nearly impossible. For example, not only uploading copyrighted material becomes illegal, mearly "making available" files for digital distribution would also be illegal. You don't have to actually commit the crime of infringement, you only have to capable of it. Also, it will be legal to use tools that protect your privacy, but illegal to distribute such tools. WTF does that mean? Jim Prentice doesn't know. He brushes off such questions as "too technical". Many legitimate and (currently) legal software programs used by Canadian consumers contain tools to circumvent DRM. You probaly have such programs on your computer.
Besides these objections, two more things really bother me. First, the bill assumes that whoever puts the DRM on the content is always right, and the customer always wrong. That amounts to a get out of jail free card when it comes to Provincial Consumer protection. Product doesn't work as advertised? Too bad, its a DRM issue. You must have broken the DRM rules, that's why it doesn't work. Case closed. There are numerous examples of bad DRM implementations. Here two current examples of DRM going horribly wrong with no consequences for the vendor.
In April, Yahoo! announced that they are closing their current online music store. Last week, they announced the DRM servers that provide continuing authorization for music purchases will go offline September 30, 2008. Music that has been purchased through the store is periodically re-authorized. This is done when you upgrade your operating system, or move the music to a different device. Its also possible a firmware upgrade for your device could trigger an authorization. Firmware upgrades are usually automatic, without user intervention. If you do something that triggers an authorization after September 30, the music will deem itself unauthorized and refuse to play. It just stops working. Yahoo promises to "take care" of customers, but declines to specify how and leaving the onus on the customer to figure out why their music doesn't work and contact Yahoo for releif. Most importantly, this is a good-will gesture by Yahoo. They are under no legal obligation to do anything for these customers. Today, it would be legal in Canada to simply strip the DRM off the tracks and continue using them. Bill C-61 would make it illegal to circumvent DRM regardless of reason or intent and subject to a statutory $20,000 fine .
The PC game Mass Effect, released June 2008, calls home every 10 days for re-authorization. If it can't reach the authorization server, or if it decides your CD key is compromised, the game shuts down. In addition, you are allowed 3 installs per CD key. Upgrading your OS (e.g going from XP to Vista) counts as one of your 3. Re-installing Windows because it breaks? That counts as well. I have to re-install Windows at least once a year. Upgrading certain hardware on the computer also counts. Which hardware in particular? That's a secret. In the case of Mass Effect, you do have an option if the application bricks. You can call Bioware and beg for a new CD key. In at least one case, they refused to issue a new key to someone that had re-installed Windows. Again, if this were my game, I'd crack it in a minute. But after C-61 comes into effect, I'd be committing an illegal act.
My second objection is that a blanket prohibition on circumventing DRM gives content owners (frequently foriegn corporations) the ability to decide what is legal and illegal in Canada. This is just wrong. We have an elected Parliament that decides what the law is supposed to be and a courts system to interpret and apply those laws. There is no room here for a music executive in Los Angeles to say "this is legal" and "that is illegal" in Canada based on the latest snakeoil pitched by some DRM company. No taxation without representation. No legislative power without electoral accountability.
After all that, the really shocking thing is that DRM doesn't work. It has never worked, and it probably never will work. Before the latest DRM locked content hits the stores, there are cracks available online. That's not an exaggeration. None of the currently planned DRM schemes will work either. Content owners are trying to find new ways to lock the content to hardware because cracking software DRM has become trivial. Unfortunately, it will again be only the honest that are penalized. With Emulation now hitting the mainstream, tweaking the "hardware" that Windows thinks it is running on will become as trivial as cracking software DRM is now.
Even worse than the fact that it doesn't work, DRM imposes unreasonable restrictions on the way customers use the purchased content. Songs will work on one device, but not another. Sometimes they won't work on different devices made by the same manufacturer. Limited installs, time-outs, remote authorization, required installation of police-ware, crippled quality. As there are no standards for DRM, every company outsources their DRM from different suppliers. There is no uniformity of usage rules, privacy standards, or implementation between vendors. Different products from the same label or publisher can have completely different DRM schemes. For example, the PC Game BioShock, developed by BioWare and published by EA (just like Mass Effect), had the phone home component dropped due to customer outcry. The 3 strikes install rule was not included either. So these two games created and published by the same two companies have completely different DRM enforced usage rules. Content downloaded from the Internet has none of these restrictions. It can be used, shared, re-used, transferred, re-encoded and used as much as the customer likes and is usually of higher quality (for music anyway). Why on earth would someone want to pay for lousy content when the same content is available in better quality for free? The unintended consequence of this bill is to make it clear: only suckers pay for content. DRM punishes the honest and provides incentives to be dishonest.
Lastly, C-61 protects music companies and movie studios from technological change. In the 1920's, the music industry tried valiiantly to block the introduction of Radio. It would destroy the sheet music business they argued. Well, they were right about that, but the sheet music business was replaced with the vastly more lucrative recording business. Jack Valenti, the movie studio's great warhorse said in 1974 about Cable TV:
A huge parasite in the marketplace, feeding and fattening itself off of local television stations and copyright owners of copyrighted material. We do not like it because we think it wrong and unfair.During a massive battle to make VCRs illegal, Valenti testified to the US Congress in 1982:
I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.Today, movie studios make far more profit on DVDs than they do at the box office. So the industry crying wolf is nothing new. The only thing that is new is that governments are caving in and giving them what they want. If blacksmiths had been as well organized and lobbied, horses would still be a common sight and automobiles a tightly controlled rarity.
Update July 29
Yahoo has announced that all customers of the ill-fated music service will be given DRM free tracks of a full refund. Commendable and good for Yahoo. Unlike Microsoft, who left customers in the lurch until public outcry forced them to keep the DRM servers running.
The Onion is at risk. Once a reliable source for fake news, The Onion has in recent years been threatened by Fox. Most recently, they've been outed for repeating talking points fed to them by the White House. And The Onion has now twice been caught posting what, in hindsight, turned out to be real news. Its just too confusing.
In the latest fiasco, a Point-Counterpoint about Iraq from March 2003 has turned out to be 100% accurate. Be sure to read both the point and the counter-point.
What Onion story will next turn out to be true? Firefighters Turned Away From Exclusive Nightclub Blaze? Queen Elizabeth II Pregnant? New X-Files Movie Opens?
I guess when it comes to fake news, there is now only one sure source.
Friday, July 25, 2008
In April, the Burj Dubai passed the KVLY-TV mast in North Dakota to become the tallest structure in the world. They have currently finished constructing the actual shell at 636m (2,087ft.). With antenna, it should top out at 818m (2,684ft.) The CN Tower, by comparison, is a measly 555m (1,822ft.).
Anheiler (image tweaked slightly in Photoshop)
When it was first announced, I had doubts about its feasibility. Being that high off the ground seems like a huge, unsustainable luxury. The illustrations looked so nice, could the building itself possibly be that elegant? Well, it appears so. I'm not sure I'd want to live here, but is sure looks nice. The only problem with this, and the other cool buildings in Dubai, is that they will all be under 20 feet of water in 60 or 70 years due to global warming. Anyway, the Burj Dubai appears to be on schedule for completion around the end of the year and occupation to start Sept 09.
The official site is here. Wikipedia entry here. Very spiffy site that compares skyscrapers here (well worth the visit).
Yes, a total rave-out from the Dandy Warhols. I love a good dirge, and this has 'em. With nasty sharp hooks and walls of guitar so dense you can't pick out the individual overdubs. Lots of heavy, heavy monster beat plus up-tempo poppy stuff as well. Tons of acoustic guitar for density and texture. They even have a trumpet on "Godless". This album has just about everything I love.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
What happened to John McCain? He used to be a pretty good politician, for a Republican. A straight talk'n, straight shoot'n populist. He actually worked to fix campaign financing, limit lobbyist influence and prevent torture by the US government. He was a good campaigner as well.
But the familiar John McCain has been replaced by an evil twin. A doppelganger. To wit; I've never seen a Presidential campaign so inept or a major party candidate so perversly inadequate. Its one staggering blunder after another. Do Pakistan and Iraq share a border? McCain says they do. A few weeks ago, he twice referred to Czechoslovakia, a country that hasn't existed for 15 years. Then there are the numerous incorrect statements he's made about his voting record. These are all facts that are checked. He knows that. Besides the large number of misstatements there have been numerous verbal gaffes by his advisors. Phil Gramm being only the latest thrown under the bus. Lastly, there was McCain's desperate attack on Obama who was effortlessly crushing him for dominance of the news cycle. He said: "I had the courage and the judgment to say that I would rather lose a political campaign than lose a war, It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign."In US Presidential politics, this is nuclear war. It pisses people off. Even GOP supporters, some of whom are actually rational and don't like being played for chumps.
At this point, it looks like McCain can't possibly win the election. He would be eaisly beaten by any mediocre Democrat. But he isn't facing an apparchik like John Kerry. He's facing one of the best politicians in a generation. This poses a big problem for the GOP. You can only steal a close election, and this doesn't look like its going to be close. It looks like a 1932 style wipeout. Their theft of the 2000 and 2004 elections were more a matter of luck than cunning. They capitlized on Gore's post-election mistakes and got a golden ruling from the Supreme Court in 2000. In 2004 they happened to steal just enough votes in the right place (Ohio). Its not like Karl Rove is Lyndon Johnson. He leaves fingerprints everywhere and his political brilliance is in direct proportion to the incompetence of his opponents. So I'm not expecting the GOP can pull this one out.
As of today, the latest polls have Obama with a 6% national lead over McCain. However, the reports on the poll do not quantify the undecideds. I don't believe the US vote is that polarized, which leads me to conclude most people have not yet firmed up their choice. Put another way, the McCain vote is soft and will erode as people start to really pay attention after labour day.
All this leaves the Republicans in a quandry. The leadership, I mean, not the Senate and House candidates. The candidates are already cooked, even if they haven't figured it out yet. Right now, I'm betting the leadership still thinks McCain will win. The big question, and I guess the point of this post is; what will the Bush politburo do when they figure out they will lose? There are a lot of rich and/or powerful people who are liable for jail time. If McCain wins, that's not going to be a problem. If Obama wins, they could be in trouble. How they are going to deal with that is a central question of this election. At this point, there is no way to know. But it could get really ugly.
This is what I feel like at the moment. I suffer from severe, chronic depression and have been off work for a year as a result. Things have been slowly improving over the last few months, but last week the wheels fell off. My mood was very poor and I often didn't have the energy to get out of bed. You can see from the quantity and quality of recent blog entries. Ups and downs are to be expected, but this is worse and more long lasting than the usual down periods.
This week, the doctor added Remeron to try and stabilize my mood. Its worked before. Unfortunately, it makes me so tired I can't really function. We are counter-acting that with Concerta. It works, but not very well. I really hate amphetemines. They make me frantic, but still dead tired. Like a wide awake drunk.
As noted in an earlier article, I think what we call depression is really a variety of different conditions that share similar symptoms. What I have feels a lot more like a mild neurodegenetrive condition than anything else. The congnitive aspects are significant. Right now my memory is like a sieve, I can't concentrate on anything and my interest level is nil. Besides being so tired I want to throw up.
Anyway, this is not a blog about depression. This is a blog to keep me busy so I can overcome depression. I just want to keep posting and this is the only thing on the table at the moment.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Serbia arrested Radovan Karadzic yesterday. After 12 years on the run, he had finally become too inconvenient. Let's hope his partner in crime Ratko Mladic becomes similarly inconvenient. Serbia wants to get into the EU, but they have to clear up the war criminal problem first.
Update - July 26
The Times has a very good article about Karadzic published today. I like to make fun of these people, but that doesn't mean they're funny.
Radovan Karadzic: Liar Who Led His Nation To Ruin
He wasn't the first, and won't be the last.
Anyway, it had always been my fond hope that Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would make a happy threesome with Slobodan Milošević in jail in The Hague. Unfortunately, my dream was dashed when Milošević accidentally killed himself. He was fiddling with his heart medication to finagle his way out of jail. But now, with the capture of Karadzic, my dream lives again!
Based on the appearance of Karadzic and Saddam Hussein, sophisticated computer modeling has been able to predict what Dickey and Rumsey will look like when they are eventually apprehended. Below are the mugshots they will provide in about 10 years.
Monday, July 21, 2008
39 years ago, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. The whole world stopped for a few hours while everyone watched. They spent about 22 hours on the moon, including 2 1/2 hours outside. The two, along with the command module pilot Michael Collins, returned to earth on July 24th bringing 21.5 kg of moon rocks and soil. Even after almost 40 years, the 380 kg of samples brought back by the Apollo astronauts are still in heavy demand for scientific research. All lunar material from the Apollo program is the property of the US government, with a peculiar exception. The astronaut’s moon suits were auctioned after the end of the program. Lunar dust clinging to the suits was deemed part of the sale. This dust is far more valuable than any material on earth. During a 2003 court case, NASA estimated the market value of lunar materials at about $4 million per kg.
This image shows Armstrong and Aldrin’s movements on the lunar surface compared to an American football field. They didn’t go far.
Here is the NASA Apollo 11 photo gallery.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Every man, young or old, gay or straight, wants to be like Tyler Durden. At least a little bit. He represents something we all feel we have lost in one way or another. I've read that only three species have active, ongoing co-operation between unrelated males. Chimpanzees, dolphins and humans. Male competition is much older and more ingrained than co-operation. We have to conquer elemental impulses to sit in meetings, stand in lines and get screwed by our cell phone companies. It's not a big deal 99% of the time. But Tyler reminds us of what we give up. Not that any sane man would want to actually live like that. Its just the idea that intrigues.
All the ways you wish you could be, that's me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.
You're not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.
Anyway, the movie is terrific although it gets a bit squishy towards the end. I'm guessing this is one of those movies that is way better than the book. The DVD commentary is excellent.
This is my favorite movie from the last 10 years.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Friday, July 18, 2008
Satiric news site The Onion reported in January 2001 on George Bush's view of his upcoming Presidency:
"Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over."Its amazing how many things they got right.
"My fellow Americans," Bush said, "at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us."Apart from the million dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be funny.
"We as a people must stand united, banding together to tear this nation in two," Bush said. "Much work lies ahead of us: The gap between the rich and the poor may be wide, be there's much more widening left to do. We must squander our nation's hard-won budget surplus on tax breaks for the wealthiest 15 percent. And, on the foreign front, we must find an enemy and defeat it."
"The insanity is over," Bush said. "After a long, dark night of peace and stability, the sun is finally rising again over America. We look forward to a bright new dawn not seen since the glory days of my dad."
Yes that's a real, un-doctored photo. You can't make this shit up.
Nice 50 meter fountain. Looks a bit like a rustic version of Geneva. Its on Lake Nyos in Cameroon. But this fountain is driven not by pumps, but by dissolved carbon dioxide. Its meant to prevent a repeat of the 1986 limnic eruption that killed 1,800. Netorama has the whole story here. As well, Wikipedia articles on Lake Nyos, limnic eruptions, and most interestingly, the site of the organization that constructed the fountain.
While the fountain above should keep Lake Nyos safe as long as nothing else bad happens (like the collapse of the natural dam that creates the lake), nobody has yet done anything about the potentially much more dangerous Lake Kivu.
[USA]Condi: Admin you can't ban GWB he's president of the USA
photo: Clifford Sax
I've been feeling quite ill for the last few days, so no posts. The goal is one or two posts every day when I can. Unfortunately, my depression fluctuates and can be quite debilitating. I've spent most of the time since Saturday in bed and quite unable to write anything. Today is a little better and it looks like I can post again this morning.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
The Edge... there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Hunter S. Thompson
Friday, July 11, 2008
Bonus! Photo of Mt. Etna from the ISS
Space.com just published an article on spotting the Space Station. Apparrently, the next few weeks will be really good for sightings due to seasonal factors.
Since the Reagan years, free-market cliches have passed for sophisticated economic analysis. But in the current crisis, these ideas are falling, one by one, as even conservatives recognize that capitalism is ailing.
E. J. Dionne, Washington Post
A great article in today's Washington Post about the crisis of Regan era economics. The key point in the current (and apparently metastasizing) credit crisis is that it represents an exploitation of market inefficiency. At business school, we learned that an efficient market is usually the best solution to an economic issue. However, markets cannot be perfectly efficient, and regulation is necessary to ensure people don't game the system. The problem with mortgage bonds is that they represented an enormous gaming of the system.
The fundamental issue is that companies lent money, then packaged the loans and sold them off to others. They made money not as a return on the investment (the mortgages) but through fees generated by parceling the loans out to others. The purchasers of the loans were expecting the same type of risk as historical mortgages, very low. However, the historical low default rate on mortgages was the result of conservative lending practices. Those practices arose because the people doing the lending were ones who would lose money if the loan defaulted. Mortgage bonds broke that connection. The ones lending the money were not going to be on the hook if the loans went bad. Market efficiency depends on that relationship between risk and return. These bonds broke that relationship. Without adequate regulation, the result becomes inevitable. Billions in bad loans that will never be re-paid.
Why does that matter beyond the dopes who bought this crap? Because a lot of those dopes were banks. Banks can only lend money as a proportion of their assets. Usually they can lend $10 for each $1 in assets. If you reduce their assets by a billion dollars, they have to start calling other loans to stay within the required asset/loan ratio. Those other loans are personal lines of credit, small business loans, other mortgages, etc. So the damage spreads. Its that spreading damage that has created the crisis. Nobody knows how much of the questionable mortgage assets will go bad, so nobody knows how much exposure the US banks have. The easy thing to do is pile out of the US dollar and buy assets valued in Yen or Euros. The dollar goes down and the price of everything in $US goes up. Inflation. How do you cure inflation? Raise interest rates. But raising interest rates will push more of the questionable mortgages into default.
Make no mistake, this is entirely a failure of Executive regulation and oversight. The US Federal Reserve, SEC and Department of the Treasurey are the agencies responsible to conduct that oversight.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Frank Lloyd Wright's iconic creation in the hills east of Pittsburgh. I found this photo some time ago on the Internet and have no idea of its source. If anyone can enlighten me as to its origin, I'll be pleased to give proper attribution.
Some interesting 3D views here.
Karl Rove to a NYT reporter, 2002
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
The funny thing is that Yojimbo went on to influence westerns and science fiction movies. Sergio Leone's first spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars, was a straight re-make, including the lead character with no name, few morals (well hidden), and awesome skills. It was re-made again (not very well) with Bruce Willis as Last Man Standing in 1996.
The biggest impact of Kurosawa's samurai pictures, however, was on Star Wars. In particular, the sword fighting, but also in terms of plot elements and characterizations.
Yojimbo was an enormous commercial success and led to the almost as good sequel Sanjuro. Also great, but not quite as much fun. Both are anchored by Torshiro Mifune's bravura performance as the man with no name. Nearing 40, the athletic action sequences were very hard on him. However, he rose to the occasion and delivers an impressive physical performance.
The commentary on my version is by a film professor who painstakingly teases out all the political sub-texts in the script. There are many. But this is not a film that needs or wants such scrutiny. It was intended to be a terrific action picture and that's the way it is best watched.
Monday, July 7, 2008
"The best way to think about depression is as a mild neurodegenerative disorder," says Ronald Duman, a professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Yale. "Your brain cells atrophy, just like in other diseases [such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's]. The only difference with depression is that it's reversible. The brain can recover."The interesting thing about SSRIs is that nobody really know why they work. They were developed in response to research showing depressed patients had low levels of serotonin. Why low levels of serotonin led to depression, or how restoring those levels led to recovery have remained mysterious. At some point, everything has to get resolved to physiology. That connection has never been adequately made until this new theory came along.In addition to providing a plausible mechanism for the effectiveness of SSRIs, the new view also takes into account the less obvious symptoms such as sleep disturbance, learning, concentration and memory problems. As someone with severe, chronic depression, I can tell you that the cognitive impairments are far more disabling than the mood problems.For anyone interested in the subject, this is a short but interesting read.
photo from the Boston Globe article.
Another article on Psych Central takes issue with the Boston Globe article, calling the theory another fad. The author points out that several key bits of the article are problematic and illogical. Most persuasively, he argues that depression can't be a neurodegenertive disorder if traditional psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can work as treatments. These would have no impact on a purely physiological disorder.
The problem with both articles, a bit less so with the Boston Globe one, is that they tend to look at depression as a monolithic condition. My belief, based only on my own experience, is that what we call depression is really a number of different underlying disorders. These disorders have different causes, different impacts on the body and different treatments. The only things they share are a generally similar set of symptoms. This explains why no one treatment helps more than a slight majority of the patients that receive it.
In my case, SSRIs have worked inconsistently, CBT a bit, ECT a bit, psychotherapy a bit, exercise a bit, diet a bit, and mediation a bit. The main ingredient in my recovery so-far has been time. This suggests to me that our understanding of the problem is still elementary.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
The Rolling Stones went on a hot streak. After their indifferent experiment with psychedelia in 1967's Their Satanic Majesty's Request, The Stones went back to basics with Beggar's Banquet in 1968. This was the first of their golden era, followed by Let It Bleed in 1969, Sticky Fingers in 1971 and Exile in 1972. A double album, Exile is raw, spontaneous and risky. The band ventured to lots of interesting places other bands were to polite to visit. More than anything, this is Keith Richard's album and his finest accomplishment. IMHO, their high point and the best album by any of the great 60's British bands. Yes, that includes The Beatles.
The Rolling Stones on Wikipedia, Rolling Stone Magazine
In recent years, Detroit has become an attraction for urban explorers. Here is a flikr group dedicated to photos of abandoned Detroit buildings. And here is the origional Metafilter post that led me to the subject.
Clearly, Detroit is a special case. The riots and auto business shrinkage in the 70's doomed the downtown. The normal business cycle upturn that should have restored the city's fortunes simply never came. New car plants went to other parts of the US with cheaper labor. The successive waves of job cuts became permanent. As a result, the population has dropped from 1.8 million in 1959 to 950,000 in 2000. Someplace, the city passed a tipping point. It seems unlikely that it can ever recover.
Other old American cities have experienced similar tendencies, but none so dramatically. Besides urban decay, there are two other interesting trends emerging. The first is the de-population of the northern plains states. It looks entirely possible that in 2100, great swaths of the Dakotas and Montana will have returned to the open grasslands that existed before 1800. The recent discovery of oil may actually accelerate that trend as the local economies find a new life not dependent on agriculture. However, it is also possible that land uneconomic for grain may be useful for ethanol. Even so, it appears the era of the great plains family farm has ended. And with it goes the first engine of American economic might. For it was the industrialization of agriculture, particularly beef and grain, that led to the rise of US wealth in the 19th century.
photo Modesto Bee
Friday, July 4, 2008
click image for larger version
April 12, 1204