Sunday, December 30, 2012

Searching For Holidays?

For those of you looking for alternative holidays during this season, don't forget Festivus with its important rituals:

  • The Festivus Pole
  • The Airing Of Grievances
  • Feats Of Strength
You can watch this instructional video to become more familiar with the holiday.

And here's the perfect gift for your new holiday:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Value Of Useless Knowledge

A sentiment enthusiastically endorsed by this blog!  From Laudator Temporis Acti [Official THC Motto: "Prowling The Internet So You Don't Have To"]:

William S. Heckscher, "Erwin Panofsky: A Curriculum Vitae," Reprinted by the Department of Art and Archaeology from the Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, volume XXVIII, number 1, 1969, p. 8:

If in retrospect we try to assess the influences, academic and personal, that shaped Erwin Panofsky's mind, I think we must beware of seeing him as a man nurtured by the "great books" or by the works of the "great masters" only. On the contrary, it was the curriculum-shunned texts, often written in a language either intentionally obscure or outright abstruse, that he taught us to appreciate as true supports of our humanistic studies. "Who has read Hisperica famina?" he might ask members of his privatissimum. "Are you familiar with Lycophron's Alexandra? Do you understand the significance of Virgilius Maro Grammaticus? Of Hiob Ludolph's Assyrian studies? Of Kepler's Somnium?" And when we shook our heads, he might add, "Gentlemen, you have yet to discover the value of useless knowledge."
And now THC will lay some useless knowledge on you.

Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968), whom I'd never heard of before running across the reference above, was a German art historian who spent most of his academic career in the U.S. after the Nazis terminated his appointment at the University of Hamburg when they came to power in 1933.

In 1935 he was invited to join the faculty of the new Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton where he became friends with physicists Albert Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli (see, "Is this really my lot, Wolfgang Pauli I'm not" by The Cambodian Brothers (1978)).
Panofsky's most important work was Studies in Iconology: Humanist Themes in the Art of the Renaissance (1939).

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Fiscal UnCliff - A Guide For The Perplexed

Is the Fiscal Cliff a cliff or not a cliff, that is the question (wait . . . what is the question)?

1.  To understand a word that everyone is using to describe the budget battle you need to understand the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Act of 1974 which established the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and set up the budgeting process used by Congress to this day.

The word is cut and Mr Inigo Montoya makes an insightful comment on its use:

Of particular import in the 1974 Act was the introduction of the concept of baseline budgeting.  In baseline budgeting you take the budget for baseline year 1 (X) and then, based upon expected inflation plus about 3%, you set the next year's (Year 2) baseline budget (X+Y%).  Any reduction from the projected Year 2 baseline budget is considered a cut even if the reduced budget is an increase in actual spending over Year 1.  When you hear the term cut in regards to the Federal budget it is usually not referring to reductions in actual spending but rather reductions in projected increased spending. Got that?

For example, over the past year there has been a lot of discussion over Congressman Ryan's proposed budget in the context of cuts.  In reality, the Ryan budget increases federal spending by 25% over the next decade compared to the Administration's 50% increase.  Neither budget actually cuts spending. 

For that matter, the 1974 budget process has broken down in recent years.  The House has passed budgets annually, but the last Senate budget was passed in April 2009 and since then the Senate Majority leader has refused to introduce annual budget resolutions so there has been no Federal budget in the traditional sense since then.  In 2011, Senator Conrad, the Democratic chair of the budget committee, announced his committee would start marking up a budget but Senator Reid dissuaded him from proceeding.

2.  With that we can now look at the impact on revenue and spending if we "fall off the cliff".

The table below is from the August 2012 CBO update.  It shows actual 2011 revenues and spending, 2012 projections based on several months data and 2013 and 2014 projections based upon existing law, including the Budget Control Act of 2011 under which the Bush-Obama tax cuts (I use this terminology instead of the usual "Bush tax cuts", since the Democratic controlled Congress voted in 2010 to extend the cuts for two years based upon President Obama's request) end on January 1, 2013 and spending sequestration occurs. Take a good look at it, particularly the 2012 and 2013 figures.
According to the CBO, if we fall off the "cliff" the deficit is reduced by $487 billion in 2013.  However, spending is reduced by only $9 billion (or 0.25%) while revenue increases by $478 billion (or 19.13%).  

Putting it another way, 98.2% of the deficit reduction comes from tax increases and 1.8% from spending cuts. 

Of the total deficit reduction, 62% comes from increases in the personal income tax ($302 billion).  Of the $302 billion in additional income tax revenue about 25% comes from the increase in the rates of the two highest brackets, while the other 75% is from the increase in the lower two brackets.1

So, from the government perspective, while there is an actual cut, it's hard to see a 0.25% revenue decrease as a "cliff" or even a "bump" - maybe more like a train running over a quarter left on the track.

3.  Now another issue arises when you hear about negotiations over deficit reductions which also originated in the 1974 Act - budget "scoring" by the CBO.  In the 1970s, the CBO made 5 year budget projections and for the past two decades has used 10 year projections.  The 10 year projections are also used to score legislative proposals such as the Affordable Care Act and the Ryan budget.

There are three huge problem with these projections:

First, they are subject to gaming and both parties are experts at this.  One technique is to front load tax increases and backload nominal savings to make a proposal look balanced.  You know you'll get the tax revenue and by the time you're out a few years no one will be able to figure out if you got the savings but you can tell the public today it's balanced according to CBO.

Second, the acts of one Congress cannot bind succeeding Congresses so they are free to change the law and spending controls agreed to by prior Congresses.  The Medicare "doc fix" is a great example of this inaction.  In 1997, Congress passed a measure to control the growth of physicians' reimbursements under Medicare.  However, each year Congress votes to put off the reduction.  Because the "doc fix" is in current law the reductions attributable to it are in the CBO budget projections even though the reductions never actually occur!

And finally, none of us have a freakin' clue what's gonna happen next year let alone 8 to 10 years from now so these projections are completely useless as detailed roadmaps for policy and budgets.

So the negotiations you hear about are about cuts that are increases and about events in the future about which no one has a clue and cannot control.

The CBO is actually a fairly professional organization and although it is mandated by law to follow this process it is aware of these problems and you can often find alternative baseline scenarios in its reports.  They are usually at the back of its reports and proceeded by an explanation along the following lines:

"We know you bozos well enough to know you have absolutely no intent of following the laws you've enacted and that you will act in completely irresponsible ways so we're going to provide an analysis of what we think is really going to happen."
You should look at these alternative scenarios - they're pretty damn scary.

So, as the argument swirl around us just remember that the "deciders" are following the principle enunciated by George Constanza:

1. There's been a lot of misinformation over the fiscal impact of reverting to the Clinton-era tax rates for the highest two brackets (the "millionaire and billionaires" making more than 200K or 250K) typified by the recent remarks of Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association:

"I brought the message that, number one, it's important that we let the Bush tax cuts disappear for the wealthiest 2%. As we're looking for a $1.2 trillion solution, $829 billion takes us a long way there." 

Mr Van Roekel compared a one year deficit ($1.2 trillion) with ten years of revenue ($829 billion) from the increased taxes.  In the real world, the increase would raise about $80 billion in first year revenues compared to the $1.2 trillion deficit.  However, given Mr Van Roekel's role in our educational system his mathematical confusion does raise a more profound issue: "is our children learning?" 

Thursday, December 27, 2012


My son and I finally got around to seeing Lincoln.  Before it came out I had some concerns about the film because Steven Spielberg can get overly reverential and superficial when he's in his "serious" mode and feared that with screenwriter Tony Kushner, who provided a corrupt moral frame for Spielberg's Munich, this new film would be awash in presentism.  I'm relieved to report that my concerns were unfounded and while Lincoln has its flaws, it is a fine film overall.

Best things about the film:

The storyline:  Great decision to make this a highly focused film around the fight to secure passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery by the House of Representatives in January 1865.  The movie is suspenseful even though you know the outcome.

Daniel Day-Lewis. From now on when I read Lincoln's speeches I'll be hearing Day-Lewis' high pitched, thin voice in my head.  He truly disappears into the role capturing both the mythic Lincoln and the guy who is always telling stories and jokes, including bathroom humor.  Astonishing to watch.  And Sally Fields is excellent as Mary Lincoln, a hard role to play well but she captures both the edginess and pathos of her personality.

The Politics. This is a movie about legislative strategy and tactics with deals getting cut and votes counted.  Well done and it helps to counterbalance the mythical aspects of the film which is hard to get away from when you're making a movie about Abraham Lincoln.

The Comic Relief.  The three "fixers" brought in from Albany to "persuade" lame duck Democratic congressmen to vote for the amendment are based on fact but also provide comic relief in the grand Shakespearean tradition.  James Spader is the lead fixer and he's a riot.

The Guy Who Played D-Day in Animal House gets to say "Now he belongs to the ages".  Bruce McGill plays Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.  He also has the funniest line in the film when Abe embarks on yet another one of his stories.

Of course it looks great because it's a Spielberg film.

The Bad

One review of the film criticized it as being a series of dioramas.  I think that is unfair in general but there are times when it is accurate.  Certainly the first two scenes in the film fit in that category and there are other sections that resemble static scenes from a mediocre Broadway play.  There is also a lot of exposition to get through and sometimes it is staged very clumsily.  During those parts it can feel like you're watching the film while on a junior high field trip.

I also wonder how much of the subtlety of the plot is lost on moviegoers if you are not history nuts like THC and son.

In A Category Of Its Own 

Tommy Lee Jones doing his Tommy Lee Jones thing and chewing up the scenery as Thaddeus Stevens.

Since I've posted several times on misremembering history how does Lincoln stack up?  I know a bit about the Southern peace commissioners trip to Hampton Roads in early 1865 and the movie does a nice job here.  I know less about the passage of the 13th Amendment but I've read a number of historian comments and the consensus is that the movie is pretty accurate on the events it portrays, at least by the standards of Hollywood.

The major historian critique is more broadly about context.  Lincoln does not portray the evolution of the President's views on slavery during the course of the war nor the role of free and recently enslaved blacks in creating a reality in which leaving slavery in place in a reunited United States would have been difficult (see also, the Forever Free series).  It's a valid criticism but it's not the film Spielberg set out to make.  On its own terms Lincoln is a good historical film and it does a surprisingly sophisticated job in presenting the strategy and arguments around the 13th Amendment.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Now He Belongs To The Blue Jays

RA Dickey.  This is a knuckleball, not an optical illusion.  It changes direction at least twice.  Watch the catcher flinch just before he catches it.  The batter does not have a clue what's going on.
 From Fangraphs

Monday, December 24, 2012

2000 Miles

For everyone who has traveled, is traveling, or wants to travel, home.  From the Pretenders.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Who's On First

It's Hot Stove League time and Jimmy Fallon pays tribute to the classic Abbott & Costello routine "Who's On First" (whether there is a question mark depends if you're looking at it from Abbott or Costello's point of view - I prefer it without since it's a statement of fact), and, in the process introduces some of the players, portrayed by Billy Crystal and Jerry Seinfeld, into the skit.  The St Louis Wolves uniform was what Bud Abbott wore in the 1945 film Naughty Nineties in which he and Lou Costello performed the routine.

Bud and Lou developed the skit during the 1930s and performed it thousands of times (usually with some variation).  In 1999, Time named Who's On First the best comedy sketch of the 20th century.  Here they are  performing it on TV in the 1950s. Jimmy Fallon has a great talent for doing well-done tributes to comedy and music acts.  From a prior post here is his send up of The Doors: This Is The End (Of Reading Rainbow).

Friday, December 21, 2012

Time I Spent Some Time Alone

I was going to post this video tomorrow to explain why the world didn't end today but then I thought "what if NASA's wrong"?While we're in an apocalyptic mood let's listen to some music!

"It's time I spent some time alone"
- It's The End Of The World As We Know It R.E.M.

"Any man left on the Rio Grande is the king of the world as far as I know"
- King Of The World Steely Dan

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of

(For faithful THC reader JS)

On December 20, 1522 a treaty of capitulation was signed by Philippe Villiers de L'Isle Adam, the Grand Master of the Knights of The Order of St John (known as The Hospitallers) with the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.  Since July a massive Turkish force had laid siege to the Knight's stronghold on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes.
(Fortress of Rhodes)
What were several hundred Christian knights doing in the middle of what had become a Turkish lake by that date?

Since the early 14th century the Ottoman empire had rapidly expanded from its origin as a small state in the western part of Asia Minor.  In the middle of that century the Turks had crossed the Dardanelles and established themselves in Europe bringing much of the Balkans under their control by the end of the century.  At the beginning of the 15th century they turned their attention to dismantling the remnant of the Byzantine Empire, finally capturing Constantinople in 1453 and renaming it Istanbul (which five centuries later inspired Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon to write Istanbul (not Constantinople) here performed by They Might Be Giants).   Over the next few decades the Ottomans mopped up isolated fortresses and islands until only Rhodes and Crete (run by Venice) were left in European hands in the eastern Mediterranean.

During the decade of the 1510s the Ottomans turned their attention eastward and launched a series of offensives in the Arab world that gained them dominion of the Middle East including the Moslem holy sites in Mecca and Medina and Egypt.  It was the conquest of Egypt that sealed the fate of the Knights of St John (also known by then as the Knights of Rhodes).

But how did they come to be on Rhodes?  The story starts with Italian merchants from Amalfi and Salerno receiving permission in 1023 from the Caliph of Egypt to rebuild a hospital for Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem.  The hospital was built on the site of the monastery of St John the Baptist.

The formal founding of the Knights Hospitallers came in 1113, after Jerusalem was captured in the First Crusade in 1099, when a papal bull was issued to The Blessed Gerard who ran the hospital.  The original knights were devoted to taking care of the sick and wounded (whence their name).  Very soon however, their duties expanded to providing armed escorts to pilgrims and this wing of the Order quickly developed into a substantial fighting force along with their rival order, the Knights Templar (founded in 1119).
 (Shield of the Knights Hospitallers)

The Order was subject only to the authority of the Pope and supported itself by large papal property grants across Western Europe.  They became one of the great military orders of the Latin kingdoms in Middle East, renowned for their expertise in fortification design and construction with the most famous example, Crac des Chevalier, still standing in modern-day Syria.(Crac des Chevalier)

However, in 1187, Saladin began his successful reconquest of the Kingdom of Jerusalem by defeating its army, including a Hospitaller contingent, at the Horns of Hattin and within a few years the Latin strongholds were reduced to the County of Tripoli and the city of Acre, which became the headquarters of the Hospitallers.  In 1291, after a lengthy siege, Acre fell to the Moslems and the surviving knights found refuge on the island of Cyprus.  It eventually became clear that Cyprus was unstable politically and the knights needed to find a new home.  They decided on Rhodes, at that time a possession of the Byzantines, and between 1307 and 1309 they conquered it.

At Rhodes, the Order reorganized itself into langues (or tongues) each commanded by a knight.  In order of precedence the langues were Provence, Auvergne, France, Castille & Leon, Aragon, Italy, France, Germany.

The Knights became even wealthier when in 1312 the Pope dissolved their rivals, the Templars, and transferred much of that order's property to them.  As the world around them changed, the Knights transformed themselves.  As Roger Crowley points out in Empires Of The Sea (2008) they:

". . . reinvented themselves as sea raiders, building and equipping a small squadron of heavily armed galleys, with which they plundered the Ottoman coasts and sea-lanes, taking slaves and booty.  For two hundred years, the Hospitallers maintained an uncompromising piratical presence at the edge of the Moslem world."

They became an increasing annoyance and embarrassment to the Ottomans, particularly after the conquest of Egypt in 1517 since Rhodes was directly astride the sea lanes of communication between Constantinople and the new province.  For the new Sultan (Suleiman ascended the throne in 1521) getting rid of this irritant was an ideal way to start his reign.

Although the Citadel of Rhodes was constructed using state of the art defensive techniques and the knights fought valiantly they also faced a courageous foe that had mastered siege warfare and was unrelenting.

Under the terms of capitulation the surviving knights (about 2/3 died in the siege) were treated well by Suleiman who consoled the Grand Master (Villiers) telling him "it was a common thing to lose cities and kingdoms through the instability of human fortune" and then turned to his vizier saying "it saddens me to be compelled to turn this brave old man out of his home".  They were allowed to leave with the documents of their order(Suleiman) and their most treasured relics; the right arm of John the Baptist and a venerable icon of the Virgin.

The knights sailed away from their home of two centuries on January 1, 1523 but they were to have one more memorable encounter with the Ottomans.

Suleiman's reign, which lasted until 1566, is the high point of Ottoman history and he is an intriguing man well worth reading about.  His primary focus was expansion in Europe.  In 1526 he shattered the Kingdom of Hungary and for nearly 150 years an Ottoman pasha sat in Budapest.  In 1529 he laid siege to Vienna and nearly captured it, an outcome which would have altered European history.  In the Mediterranean all of the Arab states in North Africa recognized him as Emperor and he had a fleet of galleys that made him master of the sea.  During the 1540s, the Sultan had an informal alliance with France against the Kingdom of Spain and during that time you had the strange circumstances of a Turkish fleet wintering in Toulon in Provence and then in the spring raiding the Italian coast and taking thousands of captives on their way back to Constantinople. 

Meanwhile the Hospitallers had found a new home.  In 1530, Charles V of Spain gave them Malta as a perpetual fiefdom in exchange for the annual fee of a Maltese falcon which became the basis for Dashiell Hammett's book and the famous movie, The Maltese Falcon:

Once again, the Knight of St John (now becoming known as the Knights of Malta) began fortifying an island and had a small fleet with which they resumed their pirate ways and harassed the Turks.

Throughout the 1540s, 50s and into the 60s, the naval war between the Ottomans and Spain and its allies intensified.  During the 1550s the Turkish corsair Turgut destroyed the Maltese knight garrisons on the island of Gozo and at Tripoli in modern-day Libya.  In 1560, a Spanish expedition to Tunisia ended in disaster when Spain's fleet was destroyed.  In 1565, Suleiman decided it was finally time to take Malta.  If the island could be conquered it would allow the Turkish fleet unfettered access to the Western Mediterranean.

By then the Grand Master of the Hospitallers was Jean Parisot de Valette, who as a 26-year old had fought on Rhodes in 1522 and commanded about 500 knights along with about 5,000 Italian and Spanish soldiers along with Maltese fighters.(Valette)

In mid-May about 40,000 Turks landed on the island.  An epic siege, punctuated by ferocious fighting, followed but with a different ending than in 1522.  Although the Turks captured some of the fortifications they suffered terrible losses and finally a Spanish relief force landed on the island and the Ottoman force collapsed with the survivors evacuating Malta on September 11.dek

The Siege of Malta became a renowned event in European history and was viewed as a turning point in the struggle with the Ottoman Empire.  Nearly two centuries later Voltaire could still write "nothing is better known than the siege of Malta".  Suleiman died the following year and Jean de Vallette passed away in 1568.

The defeat at Malta was the first of two key tuning points for the Ottomans in their battle for naval supremacy.  The second came six years later at the Battle of Lepanto, off the Greek coast, when a combined Spanish, Venetian, Genoan and Hospitallers fleet smashed the Ottoman navy.  On land the Ottomans remained a threat to the other European powers until their defeat at the Second Siege of Vienna in 1683.

The siege was the high point in the history of the Hospitallers.  With the receding of the Ottoman threat their reason for being lost its focus, though the North African corsairs (the Barbary pirates) remained a menace for another two centuries.  With the Protestant Reformation, the Knights lost much of their wealth and were further diminished by the seizure of religious properties after the French revolution.  They continued their raiding and plundering but interest and support from the rest of Europe was shrinking and many of the knights hired themselves out to various European powers.  Finally in 1798, Napoleon seized Malta on his way to Egypt and dispersed the order.

In 1834 the Order, now known as The Sovereign Military and Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem, called of Rhodes, called of Malta reestablished itself with its headquarters in Rome.  Now popularly known as the Knights of Malta the Order has returned to its original mission of supporting hospital and welfare activities.  They even have their own website!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Couldn't Stand The Weather

Outstanding guitar work from Stevie Ray Vaughn.Stevie Ray also did a soulful cover of Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing which I wrote about in a prior post.

Dan Inouye

Sen Daniel Inouye died yesterday at 88, having represented Hawaii in the Senate since 1963.

Inouye, along with his family, immigrants from Japan, was interned by the United States during WWII, but he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army where he served in Italy and was awarded the Medal of Honor for an action in which he lost his right arm.  Here is the official citation.

"Second Lieutenant Daniel K. Inouye distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism in action on 21 April 1945, in the vicinity of San Terenzo, Italy. While attacking a defended ridge guarding an important road junction, Second Lieutenant Inouye skillfully directed his platoon through a hail of automatic weapon and small arms fire, in a swift enveloping movement that resulted in the capture of an artillery and mortar post and brought his men to within 40 yards of the hostile force. Emplaced in bunkers and rock formations, the enemy halted the advance with crossfire from three machine guns. With complete disregard for his personal safety, Second Lieutenant Inouye crawled up the treacherous slope to within five yards of the nearest machine gun and hurled two grenades, destroying the emplacement. Before the enemy could retaliate, he stood up and neutralized a second machine gun nest. Although wounded by a sniper’s bullet, he continued to engage other hostile positions at close range until an exploding grenade shattered his right arm. Despite the intense pain, he refused evacuation and continued to direct his platoon until enemy resistance was broken and his men were again deployed in defensive positions. In the attack, 25 enemy soldiers were killed and eight others captured. By his gallant, aggressive tactics and by his indomitable leadership, Second Lieutenant Inouye enabled his platoon to advance through formidable resistance, and was instrumental in the capture of the ridge. Second Lieutenant Inouye’s extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the United States Army."
Now read this for a little more detail:

"I looked at it, stunned and disbelieving. It dangled there by a few bloody shreds of tissue, my grenade still clenched in a fist that suddenly didn't belong to me anymore," Inouye wrote in his 1967 autobiography, "Journey to Washington," written with Lawrence Elliott.
Inouye wrote that he pried the grenade out of his right hand and threw it at the German gunman, who was killed by the explosion. He continued firing his gun until he was shot in the right leg and knocked down the hillside. Badly wounded, he ordered his men to keep attacking and they took the ridge from the enemy.

Monday, December 17, 2012

No Flying Cars

A few days ago I wrote about the 40th anniversary of the last Apollo voyage.  Apparently the anniversary prompted some moaning about the lack of big technological innovation compared to what people imagined fifty years ago.

At Bloomberg, Virginia Postrel puts these complaints into perspective.  An excerpt:

"The world we live in would be wondrous to mid-20th-century Americans. It just isn’t wondrous to us. One reason is that we long ago ceased to notice some of the most unexpected innovations. 

Forget the big, obvious things like Internet search, GPS, smartphones or molecularly targeted cancer treatments. Compared with the real 21st century, old projections of The Future offered a paucity of fundamentally new technologies. They included no laparoscopic surgery or effective acne treatments or ADHD medications or Lasik or lithotripsy -- to name just a few medical advances that don’t significantly affect life expectancy.

The glamorous future included no digital photography or stereo speakers tiny enough to fit in your ears. No forensic DNA testing or home pregnancy tests. No ubiquitous microwave ovens or video games or bar codes or laser levels or CGI-filled movies. No super absorbent polymers for disposable diapers -- indeed, no disposable diapers of any kind. 

Nor was much business innovation evident in those 20th century visions. The glamorous future included no FedEx or Wal- Mart, no Starbucks or Nike or Craigslist -- culturally transformative enterprises that use technology but derive their real value from organization and insight. Nobody used shipping containers or optimized supply chains. The manufacturing revolution that began at Toyota never happened. And forget about such complex but quotidian inventions as wickable fabrics or salad in a bag."
You can find the whole article here.

Ms Postrel has written a great deal about the future, technological change and attitudes towards it, most prominently in 1999's The Future And Its Enemies.

Making The Big Decisions

Things Have Changed Management Consulting LLC is pleased to present the latest in its career advice and management series.  For those of you, particularly in large organizations, who have wondered how the "big bosses" make key decisions, this finely crafted video will be illuminating and insightful.  It certainly provides a very plausible explanation for some of the decisions I saw in my corporate career.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Goodnight Moon

Forty years ago today the last human visit to the Moon ended when the Apollo 17 astronauts lifted off from the Taurus-Littow Valley.  No humans have gone higher than low-Earth orbit since.  I would have been very surprised if you told me in 1972 that is what would happen.

The Pilot of the Lunar Entry Module (L.E.M.) was Harrison Schmitt, who later became a United States Senator from New Mexico.  With him was Mission Commander Eugene Cernan.  Piloting the Command Module in its Moon orbit was Ron Evans.

Apollo 17 was the only nighttime launch for the program and it was spectacular.  You can watch it in this video (go to the 2:50 mark).  The Saturn V rocket was gigantic, standing twice as tall as the Space Shuttle.  Think of it as launching a 30 story building.

This is the liftoff from the moon on December 17, 1972.

Eugene Cernan on the Moon (or perhaps on the top-secret set in New Mexico)

The Apollo 17 Lunar Rover remains on the moon.

And here's one of the few songs written about the Apollo program; For Michael Collins, Jeffrey & Me by Jethro Tull Michael Collins was the Command Module pilot left behind when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin began their descent and the song is from his perspective.

I'm with you L.E.M 
Though it's a shame that it had to be you 
The mother ship is just a blip 
From your trip made for two
I'm with you boys

So please employ just a little extra care 
It's on my mind I'm left behind
When I should have been there
Walking with you

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Enormous Savage Rodent

One of my favorite TV shows is Fawlty Towers, a 12 episode British production from the mid-70s starring (and co-written by) John Cleese of Monty Python fame.  Cleese plays Basil Fawlty, who runs a second rate B&B in Torquay along with his adversary . . . I mean wife, Sybil (Prunella Scales).

In this scene Basil has just discovered that the hamster one of his staff (Manuel, who's from Barthelona) has been keeping for the past year is actually a rat (named Basil) and the local health inspector is on his way.

Enjoy.  I like the last line best.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Old Rockers

It gets scarier.  Go here for more.  Which one is the most sobering?

And where do I fit in this spectrum?  I'm with Joe Walsh: 

"Everybody's so different.  I haven't changed"

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Fear Is Here To Stay, Love Is Here For A Visit

Yes, you can find just about anything on the internet.  I'd always known that the first time I'd seen Elvis Costello was during his first US tour at Boston's Paradise Club in 1977 but could not remember the date.  Now, thanks to setlist, I know it was on Friday or Saturday night, December 9 or 10.

I'd first heard Elvis earlier that fall.  I was living in Maynard, Massachusetts and one of my roommates was playing piano in Jonathan Edwards' touring band.  Jonathan was at the house one day and I asked him (J. Edwards) if he had heard any good new music (this was during the disco-induced drought, and a very dull time in rock).  He mentioned that he'd just been in New York meeting with record companies and heard two new debut albums he'd really liked.

The first was Talking Heads:77 (released on Sept. 16) and the second was My Aim Is True by Elvis Costello (can't find release date; Wikipedia is wrong in showing the US release as March 1978).

I went out the next day and purchased both records listening first to Talking Heads which I really enjoyed.  I then put on My Aim Is True and didn't listen to anything else for the next couple of weeks, playing it over and over again.

What drew me to it were the lyrics and the attitude.  If you've seen Elvis in the last 20 years he's adopted the persona of a genial talk show host.  The Elvis of the late 70s was aggressive, angry and conveyed a sense of urgency all the time.  A week after we saw him he appeared on Saturday Night Live and earned a lifetime ban from SNL by switching after a few bars from the song he was supposed to play (Less Than Zero) to Radio, Radio.                                                                                                           (Elvis on SNL) And the lyrics did have an edge:

Watching The Detectives
You think you're alone until you realize you're in it
Fear is here to stay, love is here for a visit
You snatch a tune and match a cigarette
She pulls their eyes out with a face like a magnet

Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking
When I hear the silly things that you say

I'm Not Angry
I know what you're doing
And I know where you've been
I know where
But I don't care
Cause there's no such thing as an original sin

Welcome To The Working Week

All of your family had to kill to survive
And they're still waiting for their big day to arrive
But if they knew how I felt they'd bury me alive

Miracle Man

Why'd you have to say that there's always someone
Who can do it better than I can
Cause don't you think that I know
That walkin' on the water won't make me a miracle man

The music on that first record did not match the electric charge and fury of the lyrics.  The band Clover provided backup and was just okay but by the time of his first US tour and second album he'd linked up with The Attractions who gave him that musical edge.

A few weeks later I saw that Elvis was coming to Boston and playing at The Paradise, a small club in the Brighton section of the city.  My friend Mike with whom I was working (recently, after a 34 year break, we began working together again) and who had also become a fan came with me.

It's most likely we saw the first show on Friday night (the setlist for both nights does not match what we heard).  Elvis was very upset because he'd just found out that dancing was not allowed at the club and he kicked off the show by denouncing the club management.  Every song was played at breakneck speed, except for Alison, with The Attractions launching a furious musical assault - actually there were moments when it looked like Elvis might personally assault the audience.

Here's a 1978 version of Watching The Detectives to give you a flavor of their live show.
> One of the unusual aspects of the show was that they played as many songs from from their next album, This Year's Model, which was not released until March 1978, as they did from My Aim Is True.  Because we'd never heard the newer songs before we couldn't make out all the lyrics but what we could understand was stunning.  Among those songs were There's No Action, The Beat, I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea, Pump It Up and the incomparable Lipstick Vogue:

Don't say you love me when it's just a rumor
Don't say a word if there is any doubt
Sometimes I think that love is just a tumor
You've got to cut it out

You say you're sorry for the things that you've done
You say you're sorry but you know you don't mean it
I wouldn't worry, I had so much fun
Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being

Maybe they've told you
You were only a girl in a million
You say I've got no feelings
This is a good way to kill them

When I got home that night, between midnight and 1 a.m., I was so charged I called my friend Larry to tell him what I'd seen.  And Mike and I made sure to get tickets to see Elvis again when he returned to play Boston at The Orpheum, on May 4, 1978.

For those who would like to see a more relaxed Elvis, here he is in 2004 playing The Deliveryman ('"in a certain light he looked like Elvis, in a certain way he seemed like Jesus") along with 2/3 of the original Attractions; Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums. Well, this post kind of got out of control and took me forever to do one-handed so I'll be doing some shorter ones for the next few days.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Day After Pearl Harbor

On December 8, 1941 President Franklin D Roosevelt asked Congress to declare that since the prior day a state of war had existed between the Empire of Japan and the United States.  There are many versions of the "day of infamy" speech on YouTube but most of them are edited.  Below is the complete version of FDR's speech.  In it you can hear the anger and outrage in his voice, reflecting that Japanese peace negotiators were in the US Capital, even as Japanese carriers launched their air strike on Pearl Harbor.  You can also hear his recital of the other attacks simultaneously carried out by Japan across the Pacific which conveys the massive scale of the assault. For an edited, but very high quality audio and picture, version click here.

Something often missed is that the US did not declare war on Germany on December 8.  This created a dilemma for American policy and military planners who believed American involvement in WWII was inevitable and who viewed Germany as the greater threat.  In fact, it had already been agreed that in the event of war with both Germany and Japan that 85% of America's resources would be devoted to defeating the Nazis.  Hitler solved the American dilemma by declaring war on the US (for reasons that are still debated today) on December 11.

Over the decades there have been suggestions that FDR knew of the planned attack on Pearl Harbor and let it proceed in order to draw the US into WWII.  I've read quite a lot about these accusations and believe them to be utterly without merit as do most historians who've reviewed the documents.

In 1941 was FDR seeking a way to get the US to intervene in the war?  Yes, but it was on the side of Britain against Germany.  War with Japan would interfere with that goal.

There have also been exhaustive studies of the intelligence (particularly via code-breaking) that the US had available to it in the weeks leading up to Pearl Harbor.  During those last days, FDR and our military were tracking Japanese naval forces and believed an attack was imminent with the likely targets being the British and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia and/or the Kingdom of Siam along with a lesser probability that American forces in the Philippines would be attacked.  There were only very scattered references to Pearl Harbor amongst a blizzard of intelligence from the broken codes.

As is often the case I'll let Winston Churchill have the last word with his reaction to Pearl Harbor:

"No American will think it wrong of me if I proclaim that to have the United States at our side was to me the greatest joy . . .  So we had won after all! . . . We should not be wiped out.  Our history would not come to an end . . .I thought of a remark which Edward Grey had made to me more than thirty years before - that the United States is like 'a giant boiler.  Once the fire is lighted under it there is no limit to the power it can generate'.  Being saturated and satiated with emotion and sensation, I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful."

Friday, December 7, 2012

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Coyote Blog

Another of the websites on my blogroll. Coyote (Warren Meyer) is of a libertarian persuasion and the owner of a small business operating in state and local parks in the Western states. His best posts bring to bear his business experiences and he has many entertaining posts on state tax, licensing and administrative processes. This recent post gives you a flavor of his take on the world.

Mike Rizzo raises a point that is a common theme here at Coyote Blog.  People often propose a statist solution because they distrust some private actor (e.g. large corporations) and want someone with power over the top of them.  However, to create such a regulatory structure, one has to give even more power to the state's regulator than the corporation has.  At least one has the choice of whether or not to deal with a private entity (unless of course it is a government-enforced monopoly, but that just takes us back to statism).  We give private actors power only to the extent that we choose to transact with them.   When we give government power, there is no longer this sort of opt-out.  Rizzo observes:
Just ask the person a question. “I can respect why you think this. But can you do me a favor? Can you imagine getting your ideal world in place, and then rather than “your guys” being in charge, how would you feel if the person/people running it were people you completely mistrusted, despised and disagreed with? Would you feel good about your system? Why or why not?”
I tell folks all the time - I don't trust private actors any more than the people in government.  What I trust more are their incentives and the tools I have for enforcing accountability on them."

Of, course the counterview is that we can always hire smarter regulators!

Hey, there's even a bipartisan belief in this.  I recently ran across a report that a couple of conservative economists advised the Romney campaign to come out in favor of breaking up the largest banks (a good piece of advice by the way - Dodd-Frank actually enshrined too big to fail) and the response was they just needed better oversight by the regulators.  Sigh.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Doubt Fire

Never got around to seeing this movie.  Looks like it was pretty scary.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Holiday Gift Idea

Gals, if you are stumped about what to get your guy here's the answer!  J&D has developed a new bacon-scented shaving cream.
Shaving cream /Ext  This linked article quotes the inventor Justin Esch as saying:

"Bacon is delicious, people get excited when they smell it. When you walk into a room don't you want people to be excited to see you?"

THC Interruptus

This morning I'm having surgery on my right hand to address an arthritic condition.  I've got posts already written and scheduled for the next couple of days but things may slow down for a bit after that depending on how my hand is doing.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cream Of The Covers

In the mid-60s, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker of Cream brought the blues to a whole new and wider audience (a new entry in the Covers series).

Here are two of many examples, I'm So Glad (from Cream's first album, Fresh Cream) and Crossroads (from their third album, Wheels Of Fire).   You can click on the song titles to hear the Cream versions.  Crossroads is live and features outstanding bass playing by Bruce and incendiary guitar by Clapton (particularly on the second solo).

I'm So Glad was written by Skip James.  Born in 1902 and raised in the Mississippi Delta, James recorded this song and others in a 1931 recording session.  An album was released but sold poorly and James drifted in and out of music and did no further recording for thirty years.

In the early 1960s a folk-based blues revival movement began in the U.S. and in 1964 one of its founders, John Fahey, tracked down Skip James at a hospital in Tunica, Mississippi.  Later that summer, James played at the Newport Folk Festival and made several recordings before dying in 1969.  Cream's version of I'm So Glad was the first cover of a James song by a popular rock band.
Another Delta musician, Robert Johnson, the composer of Cross Road Blues, is probably the most legendary of the early bluesmen.  He made several recordings in 1936 and 1937 before dying at the age of 27 the following year under mysterious circumstances (including a rumour that he was poisoned by a jealous husband).  There are many other covers of his songs including Love In Vain, which was covered by the Rolling Stones.  This is the original Cross Road Blues.
From a cinematic perspective James and Johnson come together in the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou?  In the film, set in 1930s Mississippi, three white escapees from a chain gang pick up a black blues musician named Tommy Johnson (played by Chris Thomas King) at a crossroads.  Later in the film King does a haunting version of Skip James' Hard Time Killing Floor Blues.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Because The Night

Patti Smith in Boston on Monday night.  One of the greatest singles in rock history.  Co-written with Bruce Springsteen and released in 1978.  Patti is now 67.  This song still gets to me.
Found via Maggie's Farm.

Let's Hope So

. . . Regarding both possibilities raised in the last paragraph below (I am trying to be optimistic).

From Arnold Kling's askblog:

The Left’s Post-Election Self-Examination?

Brad DeLong writes,
Massachusetts has been walking down this exchange-and-public-program-expansion road for six years now, since Mitt Romney signed RomneyCare. Massachusetts has been vacuuming up doctors and nurses from Costa Rica and elsewhere and still has been finding that the cost of treating your state population is higher when 97% are insured than it was when 88% were insured. And there aren’t enough loose doctors and nurses in the rest of the world for the ACA to vacuum up enough of them to meet the needs of not 1 state but 50 states.
…What is your guess as to what will happen if the ACA works for access, works for quality, works for coverage–but the extra health-care workforce needed isn’t there, and the lines start to get longer?
Pointer from Tyler Cowen.

Until the election, this sort of question had only been asked by conservative economists.
Perhaps this is an early example of the pattern of self-examination that I thought might take place after the election. When it comes to their policy portfolios, the Republicans will be second-guessing themselves in terms of political positioning. Meanwhile, the Democrats may be second-guessing themselves in terms of feasibility.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Where Is The Real Mona Lisa?

If you thought it's in the Louvre in Paris, think again.  DaVinci's masterpiece is really in a private home in Queens, New York.  It's true - I saw it in a movie - The Freshman, a 1990 film starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick, directed by Andrew Bergman who wrote the original screenplay for Blazing Saddles.

Matthew Broderick plays a kid from Vermont who has just arrived in New York to start his first year of college at NYU.  Marlon Brando plays - well, just watch the trailer for the movie and I think you can tell who he's playing, except that in this film they call him Carmine Sabatini and he plays the role impeccably.
Also in the cast are Penelope Ann Miller as Carmine's daughter, "the lovely Tina", Bruno Kirby, and Maximilian Schell as Larry London, the operator of a very unusual gourmet eating experience.  Also featured is Paul Benedict as Professor Fleeber, a teacher of film history who is fixated on (what else?) The Godfather.

A very funny and eccentric movie with a star turn by a Komodo Dragon.

And here's a little more Brando from the film.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Boogie Fever

We're going to go backwards in time to explore the boogie.

First up is Chris Isaak with Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing from 1995.  The production is top-notch.  The bass plus Isaak's voice and then the rockabilly guitar kicking in make it something special.  And it certainly does sound bad, whatever that thing was, which you can confirm by watching the MTV video.

Next is LaGrange by the boys from ZZ Top (1973) who are still rocking in this more recent clip.  And you can't beat that sophisticated lyricism:
Rumour spreadin' a-'round in that Texas town
'bout that shack outside La Grange
And you know what I'm talkin' about.
Just let me know if you wanna go
To that home out on the range.
They gotta lotta nice girls ah.

This is John Lee Hooker with Boom Boom from the early 1960s on British TV.  You can hear where ZZ Top got its vocal stylings.  I saw Hooker play at a club in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1970s.  The man had a groove. And now you can hear where ZZ Top and Chris Isaak got the beat.  This is John Lee Hooker again doing Boogie Chillen - it's a 1992 live version.  The circle is unbroken!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Master And Commander

Their first encounter was on a warm evening in 1800 in the music-room of the Governor's House at Port Mahon, Minorca in the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain where both had gone to hear a performance of Locatelli's C major quartet.

That first meeting between Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin did not go well.  Maturin chastised Aubrey for beating time with his hand upon his knee leaving Jack with "the strongest inclination to snatch up his little gilt chair and beat the white-faced man down with it; but he gave way with a tolerable show of civility".

Shortly thereafter circumstances draw them together and it is the start of, as Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains, "a beautiful friendship".

It is also the start of the twenty volume Aubrey-Maturin series written by the English novelist Patrick O'Brian (1914-2000), a series referred to by a New York Times reviewer as "the best historical novels ever written".  In this instance I am very happy to find myself in agreement with the Times.

O'Brian was a modestly successful (and very secretive) writer who finally found broader success with the publication of the first novel in the series, Master And Commander, in 1970 with the last volume being published around the time of his death.  I first heard of the books in the late 1980s, around the time they began to be published in the United States, and was immediately drawn into their world.

The novels are set in the world of the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars but they are much more than an account of battles.  They tell one long, coherent story and can be viewed as early 19th century "novels of manners" set mostly at sea (though a couple of the books are set entirely on land without any naval engagements).  

Most historical fiction, even the best, contains some element of a modern-day worldview or consciousness in its writing.  O'Brian's novels are written as though he is living in 1805.  Perhaps it helped that from 1949 until his death, he and his wife lived in a small, isolated Catalan village in southern France.  There is not a breath of modernity or 20th century irony in these books.  They are truly of their time. Because of this the reader is enveloped in O'Brian's world and develops a deep affection for the characters and the HMS Surprise.

Jack Aubrey, the ambitious captain we meet in the first book has the sensibility of his time while Stephen Maturin, the Irish-Catalan surgeon and naturalist (and spy for the British Admiralty) is a character who could simply not exist in today's world. 

Full of arcana about 19th century sailing and warships, food and nature the books spawned a cottage industry of ancillary publications.  There are books explaining its lexicon (A Sea Of Words), a cookbook based on its recipes, studies of the British navy (Jack Aubrey Commands) and biographies on the characters upon which Aubrey is based.

The series also inspired one of the finest film adaptations of a historical novel, Master And Commander, released in 2003 and starring Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey, which was nominated for ten Academy Awards.  Despite being named for the first book in the series, it is actually a combination of parts of the stories from three of the novels.  This YouTube video by a fan of the series captures the spirit of the film.
In Peter Weir, the film had a director who matched the sensibilities of the novel.  Like O'Brian he builds an entirely self-contained 19th century world.  Weir is an Australian director who started in the late 1970s making "new wave" Aussie films such as Picnic At Hanging Rock and Gallipoli (with Mel Gibson).  In 1983 he made The Year Of Living Dangerously with Gibson and Sigourney Weaver which is set in 1965 Indonesia during the run up to the revolt that overthrew President Sukarno (definitely worth seeing).  In the U.S. his first big hit was Witness with Harrison Ford

Russell Crowe is perfect as Jack Aubrey.  I bet that if you took a poll of O'Brian fans before the casting of the film, Crowe would have been the overwhelming pick for Aubrey.  He looks and acts as we all imagined Aubrey.  Aubrey is a natural leader and Crowe makes you understand whyPaul Bettany on the other hand is not a physical match for Maturin.  Maturin is described as small and dark (Bettany is tall and fair) and as an Irish-Catalan does not speak with an upper class English accent (which Bettany does).  However, Bettany captures well the spirit of Maturin, including his coldly rational outlook on much of life combined with a passionate streak of contrariness and instinctive resistance to authority and his interplay with Crowe is as intimate as in the books as you can see in this clip:
Weir recreates life on a British warship with all its cramped quarters, class distinctions, discipline and superstitions and even the smaller roles are well-cast.  David Threlfall, as Preserved Killick, Aubrey's steward is as cranky as in the books and James D'Arcy as young Lt. Tom Pullings is as if he jumped out of one of the novels.

The other actor of note is young Max Pirkis who plays Midshipman William Blakeney.  The British navy often had boys between nine and twelve years old serving on its ships and Blakeney and his compatriots are major characters.  From today's perspective it is shocking to see how they are deployed at such a young age but the movie just plays it as a natural thing and we see how they mature in these conditions.

Whether it is day to day life on ship, the intimacy of the officers' dinner, battles with their French nemesis, the Archeron, plunging through stormy, wintry seas or a quieter sojourn in the Galapagos, the film conveys a sense of realism about its time rarely found in such movies and it bears repeated viewing.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Why Don't You Do Right

Peggy Lee with Benny Goodman on clarinet along with his orchestra.  This was Peggy's breakout hit in 1942, reaching #4 on the charts and selling over one million copies.  Composed by Kansas Joe McCoy.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Masters Of Conventional Wisdom

Established pundits often write things that reflect the conventional wisdom - the stuff they say to each other over and over again in the circles in which they hang out.  After awhile they no longer think about it even if it no longer makes any sense.  Occasionally I'm going to feature examples of this phenomenon.

My first example is from Fareed Zakaria, who has rocketed to prominence in print and TV (he currently has a show on CNN that is, I believe, called "Fareed Zakaria: Look How Smart I Am").
Zakaria had a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post entitled Israel Dominates The New Middle East.  Most of the essay is about the dominant position of Israel's conventional military power and I agree with the analysis - though he neatly avoids any discussion of Iran's nuclear program and its profound implications for this balance.

It's in his last paragraph that he goes completely off the rails by thoughtlessly spouting the conventional wisdom.  What makes this a great example is you can see the logical flaw within the actual sentences of the paragraph. See if you can spot it:

"These are the realities of the Middle East today. Israel’s astonishing economic growth, its technological prowess, its military preparedness and its tight relationship with the United States have set it a league apart from its Arab adversaries. Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis will come only when Israel decides that it wants to make peace. Wise Israeli politicians, from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to Ehud Barak, have wanted to take risks to make that peace because they have worried about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state. This is what is in danger, not Israel’s existence."
Answer: It's in the second and third sentences.

First, he writes:

Peace between the Palestinians and Israelis will come only when Israel decides that it wants to make peace. 

In other words, peace is entirely in the Israeli's court, there is no obligation for the Palestinians.  This does reflect much of world opinion today and as well as elite American and European foreign policy opinion.

But then, he accidentally lets the cat out of the bag with his the next sentence:

Wise Israeli politicians, from Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert to Ehud Barak, have wanted to take risks to make that peace because they have worried about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.

So, according to Zakaria, three Israeli politicians from three different political parties over the course of a decade have wanted to take risks to make that peace.

Let's review those risks they took and what they got back in return.   Barak unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon and at Camp David (2000) and Taba (2001) offered a two state solution which was rejected without any attempt by the Palestinians for further negotiation.  In return, Israel got the Second Intifada, a series of horrific terror bombings and a Hezobollah terror state in southern Lebanon which launched a 2006 attack on Israel.  As an extra added bonus, Israel also learned that according to the Palestinians there never was a Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

Sharon unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and forceably removed thousands of Israeli settlers   In return Israel had thousands of rockets shot into its territory and a government in Gaza whose charter attacks the very existence of Israel and specifically denounces Jews everywhere.

In 2008, Olmert essentially reproposed the two state solution from Camp David and Taba.  He was simply ignored.

Since then, the Palestinian Authority has refused repeated offers by Israel to reopen negotiations.

Do you think that it's possible that perhaps it may actually take two parties to make a peace?

Did Zakaria actually read what he wrote?  If he read it, he certainly did not think about it.


We saw the new James Bond movie and had mixed feelings about it.

When Daniel Craig reinvigorated the Bond franchise with Casino Royale it was exciting.  Casino Royale was the first Bond movie I'd seen in a theater in more than 25 years (I still remember seeing my first Bond, Dr No, at the Darien Playhouse in the early 60s) and it was exhilarating from the first incredible action scene right to its close.  I looked forward to the future films.

I missed Quantum Of Solace in the theaters and each time I've started to watch it on cable I've turned it off after a few minutes.  Nothing in it grabbed me.

Skyfall falls between Casino and Quantum.  The cast continues to be very strong anchored by Craig and Judy Dench, who gets more screen time than usual.  They've also retooled and restored a couple of the classic characters in a very good way - Ben Whishaw as the new and very young Q and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny (I first saw her in the nerve-rattling 28 Days Later). Javier Bardem plays the villain and he's suitably bizarre, though slightly less monstrous and a little more  animated than he was in the bad guy role in No Country For Old Men.  And Albert Finney is terrific in a small, but important, role.
Ben Whishaw as Q
Naomie Harris as Moneypenny

Parts of the plot and the settings are engaging but therein lies part of the problem.  You get the feeling throughout that Skyfall strains to be a more introspective Bond film that has a deeper meaning.  James Bond, introspection and deeper meaning don't go together.

You can have a ridiculous Bond plot in a ridiculous Bond movie and it can work.  Skyfall has some ridiculous and nonsensical plot points but at the same time the movie is also trying to convey a degree of "realism" unusual in a Bond film and it makes for an odd mixture.  While some of the dialogue has the expected Bond movie wit, much of it is very pedestrian.

Maybe it was because Casino Royale was so terrific but by comparison the action scenes in Skyfall seem a beat off - they just don't have the same crispness and sparkle.

Despite these reservations we enjoyed it, but were left thinking it could have been much better.

Friday, November 23, 2012

How To Be A Beatle

Step 1:

Learn how to play off-beat chords, starting with the opening chord of A Hard Day's Night.  Follow the instructions below from Randy Bachman, formerly of Bachman-Turner Overdrive (Takin' Care of Business/You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet) and The Guess Who (American Woman/No Time)

Step 2:

Learn how to sing Beatles harmonies from two guys in a coffee bar in Bologna, Italy.

Step 3:

Top Of The Pops!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

"As God is my witness I thought turkeys could fly".

Thanksgiving Advice

If you are thinking of deep-frying a turkey read this first.  From Popular Science.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Showtime's Agitprop

 Definition of AGITPROP

: propaganda; especially : political propaganda promulgated chiefly in literature, drama, music, or art
agitprop adjective

Origin of AGITPROP

Russian, ultimately from agitatsiya agitation + propaganda
First Known Use: 1935
 - From Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

 Rather than the often repeated adage that the victors write the history of an event, the story of anything is actually determined by the unswerving adoption of one version of it, and the telling of that version by a determined cadre of writers.  In time, the version with the most persistent adherents becomes the "truth".
- David & Jeanne Heidler in Henry Clay: The Essential American (2010)
A couple of days ago I happened to tune into Showtime and caught some of "Oliver Stone's Untold History Of The United States".  I was originally going to make this part of the Misremembering History Series but Stone's series isn't misremembering, it is deliberately designed agitprop in the service of making Americans misremember their own history.

Now it's no secret if you know anything about Oliver Stone that he's a buddy of totalitarian rulers as long as they are hostile to the United States - see, for instance, Castro, Chavez and the AyatollahsNonetheless, I was appalled and shocked at the portion of the show I saw about the origins of WWII.  It was nothing less than an apologia for Josef Stalin using the same propaganda that the Communist Party used in the 1930s to justify the Soviet Union's acts.  This isn't hyperbole - I'm familiar enough with the Communist tropes of this period to know Stone is using precisely the same "talking points" used by the party to excuse Stalin's pact with Adolf Hitler, his occupation of part of Poland and his extinguishing of the independence of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

Now that I've read the publicity material on the series I realize it is all in support of its thesis blaming the Cold War entirely on the United States and an interpretation of American history using a bizarre mix of Marxist and Post-Modernist theory.  The American "hero"of the series is Henry Wallace, FDR's VP during his third term, who after WWII became a Communist dupe and advocated the abandonment of the people of Berlin during the Soviet blockade of 1948-9.

This is the regime Stone defends - see Life And Fate; Best History Songs; Tear Down This Wall.  He actually does not care about the tens of millions of lives lost or damaged as long as he can use them as a tool to damage America (or should I say Amerikkka?).

This, among other recent events, makes me wonder whether we are losing our own history.   History is subject to different intepretations.  There is no one way to look at it but what is going on with Stone and others is an attempt to permeate the culture with one view of incredible shallowness.  We need to be prepared to fight for our history rather than lose it to people like Stone.

Some other recent examples spring to mind.  A couple of years ago, The History Channel presented a homage to the late Howard Zinn, author of A People's History Of The United States, a book described by a liberal historian as "cynicism masquerading as history".  It was hosted by Matt Damon and several other Hollywood stars (which probably gave it the cachet to prompt The History Channel to show it).  Damon is a fine actor but also an acolyte of Noam Chomsky in addition to being a Zinn worshipper.

I watched one show and it was a great example of how the agitprop technique is deployed.  It was about the "heroic" Dalton Trumbo and featured a reading from his book, Johnny Got His Gun.  It had everything going for it, Trumbo was a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who wrote a powerful anti-war book (made into a really bad movie during the Vietnam War).  
Dalton Trumbo
Ah, but what was left out?  Trumbo was a secret member of the Communist party, which meant he was under party discipline and following direct orders from the Soviet Union.  He wrote his anti-war book after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, in accordance with the Party's directive to discourage the US from supporting Great Britain and from intervening in the war since Stalin was now an ally of Hitler.  Once the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, people like Trumbo began agitating for immediate US entry into the war.  Trumbo had his publisher withdraw the book from further publication and when he received letters inquirying about its availability he turned them over to the FBI!

More recently, the October 2012 edition of Connecticut Magazine, contained an article entitled "The Last Communist".  Connecticut Magazine is usually a pretty bland magazine - the other two featured stories that month were "Connecticut Home & Garden" and "Drinking It In"(about the best Connecticut produced wines).  The Last Communist is an admiring profile of the Coordinator of the New Haven People's Center, a member of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), and in the center of controversy since a state grant to the Center was rescinded after more people became aware it was run by a Communist.

There is a legitimate public policy discussion you can have about the grant.  That wasn't what bothered me.  It was the complete lack of context about the history of Communism and of the CPUSA and the labeling of all opposition as "McCarthyite".  The McCarthy trope is one of the commonest techniques used by today's left to misremember history.  It's designed to cut off all discussion and also as an easy counterpoint any time a murderer of millions is attacked.  Don't like Stalin - hey, what about McCarthy?  Don't like Mao - hey, what about McCarthy?  Don't like Fidel - hey, what about McCarthy?  Joe McCarthy was a repulsive character, but the CPUSA was an organization under the direct control of Moscow (as revealed by documents from the Soviet archives that became available in the 1990s) and fiercely opposed by Democratic Socialists (led by Norman Thomas) and liberals (who founded the Americans For Democratic Action to fight them) as well as conservatives. 

It's clear to me that it was not ignorance of this history by the writer, Alan Bisbort, that led to the admiring portrayal of communism in the article.  A quick google search reveals Bisbort to be a committed leftist who knew exactly what he was doing, just as Stone and Matt Damon know what they are doing.  They have a clear ideological agenda and the ability to further it through accommodating media channels.

Will we sit by and let more of America "misremember"?