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July 2009

The Lack of Personal Entries

Well, you might say to yourself, Paul's on summer vacation, so of course he'll be having lots of adventures to share with the 90 or so of us who glance at this blog now and then. So it would seem. But in fact, job one each summer is to clear off the nine-month accumulation of backed up projects and filing that I don't get to during the school year. And I do so enjoy the opportunity to catch up on my reading. And I have a lot of travel this summer, some of which requires advance planning (Portland and LA), and some of which requires homework (my week in Boston at the NEH program on the Lowell Mills). I did manage to separate out five years of old transactions from our accounting program, and eliminate a bunch of unused categories, and cut my rolodex back from 1800 entries to 900 (and now I have to reload my iPhone) by eliminating the dead, the useless and the forgotten. Lots more reading ahead (and I'll share the results with you), as well as news of my trips, and a reorganization of my journalism movies page. More anon!

Obama Still Hasn't Taken Our Advice

Check out this article by MIT Professor Simon Johnson

"Writing in the New York Times today, Joe Nocera sums up, "If Mr. Obama hopes to create a regulatory environment that stands for another six decades, he is going to have to do what Roosevelt did once upon a time. He is going to have make some bankers mad."

Good point – but Nocera is thinking about the wrong Roosevelt (FDR). In order to get to the point where you can reform like FDR, you first have to break the political power of the big banks, and that requires substantially reducing their economic power - the moment calls more for Teddy Roosevelt-type trustbusting, and it appears that is exactly what we will not get."

It's time for the people to insist on trustbusting and real regulation in the public interest (rather than in the interest of the banks which pay the salaries of the regional Fed officials). That is, to insist that your employees (President Obama, Treasury Secretary Geithner, Federal Reserve Chair Bernanke, Presidential advisor Summers, and each member of the Congress) implement the steps PSACOT urged more than four months ago. Since then the Obama Administration has shockingly done nothing to implement PSACOT's proposals (and most members of Congress have done very little).

Those proposals included:

  1. restore the Glass-Steagall Act
  2. close the insolvent banks
  3. help the banks and the bankers by limiting the assets which may be held by a single bank to about $100B
  4. reform the currently big banks by having their shareholders split them into banks holding no more than about $75B in assets thus allowing for growth up to the $100B limit
  5. help the banks and their shareholders by eliminating the risk currently posed by tranche-laden Collateralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps by:
    1. banning any trading or new sales of these toxic derivatives effective immediately in the United States or by anyone dealing with the U.S. financial system
    2. banning the holding of naked Credit Default Swaps (a CDS not owned by an owner of the entire underlying credit) after December 31, 2009, or the due date of the next insurance payment due on the CDS, whichever comes first)
    3. allowing the current obligations of current CDOs and CDSs to be met
  1. help the housing industry and the banks by requiring down payments of at least 25% on any new loans for the purchase of homes or commercial properties
  2. require any new securitized debt obligations to be without tranches (all purchasers share pro rata in the payments received) and to be rated by agencies not paid by the issuers or sellers of the securities (the assessment of creditworthiness will be by the purchasers or agencies paid directly by the purchasers)
  3. ban off balance sheet activities (effective with any financial report filed on or after December 31, 2009) by any company whose securities are traded in the United States or which deals with the U.S. financial system
  4. use mark-to-market accounting
  5. assess, effective October 1, 2009, an additional fee of 2 cents per share and $20 per bond on all equity and bond trades on any U.S. stock exchange or bond market including NASDAQ. A fee of $2 per option contract and $20 per commodities, future, or option on future contract subject to limited exceptions for agricultural commodities and physical goods. The proceeds will be available first to hire additional trained and experienced bank examiners and staff at the SEC and CFTC and second to reduce the national debt.

Call your members of Congress, tell them to implement the needed changes, announce their retirements, or be retired.




Year One

3 stars out of 5

Jack Black and Michael Cera, stars of Year One, have a sort of Laurel and Hardy vibe going, or, to take a more recent comedy team example, David Spade and Chris Farley. Let us hope that Black manages to live longer than Farley, so that we can see this team at work again. Laurel and Hardy made more than 100 films. Modern artists don't have careers that long, but I'd love to see a few more featuring Black and Cera.

This film is more "smile" funny than "laugh out loud" funny. Highly amusing turns are offered by Oliver Platt as the high priest, Hank Azaria as Abraham and Juno Temple as the cute girlfriend ("When do you get off?" "Never. I'm a slave."). The humor is sophomoric ("Will you be my right hand?" "I've seen what you do with your right hand."), but not everyone can be S.J. Perlman. I mean, I hate to make Land of the Lost my new standard for lousy, but the fact is that while I rarely laughed out loud during this film, I rarely felt cheated or disappointed either.

With David Cross as a very amusing Cain (and Paul Rudd as the uncredited Abel), Cera once again heads an Arrested Development reunion. That fantastic under-appreciated Fox program will prove to be the minor league team that produces a lot of major league comedy talent.

The Hangover

2.5 stars out of 5

This is the humor of embarrassment and excess, taken to, well, excess. It is mildly amusing in places, but not outright funny. Hardly a waste of time. There is apparently some hidden charm, since some savvy moviegoers I know have recommended it. As a result, I sat through the whole thing, hoping for it to improve, whereas under most circumstances I'd have bailed halfway through. It isn't awful, there are moments that are surprising, and even some moments that are touching. But overall, just tain't funny McGee.


3 stars out of 5

Michelle Pfeiffer. I mean, really, what else does a movie need? Even though this wasn't a BBC production, it reads just like one, with beautiful scenery, great acting, and languid plot development based on the work of a classic author (in this case, Collette). It seems a shame that a women of Pfeiffer's tender years (51) is cast as "the older woman," but that's Hollywood for you. Kathy Bates is a kick in the pants as Pfeiffer's rival/friend, and the mother of the title character, her son Cheri, the May in this May/December romance. In addition to being languid, the plot is also depressing (things don't work out so well in the end), and there's a lot of narration. Is that OK? William Goldman wrote that narration is for losers, but there are films where it makes sense. I can't make up my mind whether this is one of them, especially as the saddest moment of the film is narrated rather than shown.

Dern Finds Hodgman Video, Tiger Woods Note, Kodachrome, Three From Craig Reynolds, Dan Grobstein File

Lots of comic book and sf refs, as Hodgman quizzes President Obama on nerd/geek trivia.

A Sports note: Tiger Woods (tied for 6th) was the only player to score three rounds under par in the 2009 U.S. Open.

They are taking our Kodachrome away.

Carig Reynolds notes Dynamic Soaring; gliders at 400 MPH. Also, Microsoft Imitates Another User Interface. Also Why doesn’t the weather forecast have a confidence interval?

Dan Grobstein File

  • 6.3 million = 50 jobs @ $126,000
    News Alert
    from The Wall Street Journal
    The head of fixed income at Harvard Management Co., the company that manages the nation’s largest college endowment, plans to step down at the end of the month, according to a person familiar with the matter.

    Marc Seidner was among the top paid at the endowment with $6.3 million in compensation from the previous fiscal year. Michael Llodra, a top fixed income portfolio manager for the endowment, is also leaving at the end of June, according to the person.

    Harvard officials have warned of a 30% decline for the fiscal year ending in June. In February, the endowment said it would eliminate 50 jobs, or a quarter of its staff.
  • HEALTH | June 23, 2009
    Well: How the Food Makers Captured Our Brains
    A recipe for indulging: salt, sugar and fat, mixed many ways. But we can fight it.
  • SCIENCE | June 25, 2009
    Flutes Offer Clues to Stone-Age Music
    Archaeologists said a bone flute and two fragments of ivory flutes discovered last fall represent the earliest known flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture.
  • GOP Dillema: Hiking, writing or having an affair?
  • quote:

    An honest mistake, explained
    by Jed Lewison
    Wed Jun 24, 2009 at 07:00:08 PM PDT

    An anonymous reader writes:

    Subject: Inside word from Sanford

    It was a slight miscommunication between Sanford and his staff. He told them he'd be "spiking some Argentina tail," and they thought he'd said, "hiking the Appalachian trail." It was an honest mistake. I think they handled it values and all.


What's Wrong With This Picture, Iranian Election: Cooked Data

What's Wrong With This Picture

Ah yes, Watergate. The Washington Post just got lucky during Watergate helping the agency dump Dick, who deserved to be dumped. Ex. Sen. Howard Baker (R. - Tenn.), a member of the Senate Watergate Committee, was more prophetic than he probably intended when he opined that he heard elephants crashing around in the woods but couldn't determine who they were. There were elephants all right but their identity will probably remain forever obscured. How? Through the good offices of The Washington Post, Bob Woodward, Senate committee majority counsel Sam Dash, and Senate committee minority counsel Fred Thompson (who lost his bid in 2008 to be nominated by the party of elephants to be a successor to Tricky Dick).

No one died because of Watergate. Well, with the possible exception of Dorothy Hunt (Howard Hunt's wife) and CBS News correspondent Michelle Clark. And maybe Murray Chotiner (a long-time political operative for Richard Nixon) who was killed by an employee of the federal government at the general time of Watergate (in a car crash in McLean, Virginia, with a U.S. Postal Service truck).

There are over 4,300 needlessly dead American service personnel because of the failures of The Washington Post. Not just the Post, of course, but other journalistic organizations, notably The New York Times. Also failures were gullible politicians, one of whom is now Secretary of State, another of whom is now Vice President, and another of whom is now chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Before the illegal, unnecessary, and unconstitutional invasion of Iraq, Dan Froomkin, a recently dismissed electronic journalist for The Washington Post, tried to stop the invasion and has since criticized for other acts.

The Post's reward to Froomkin? They fired him and gave column space to an architect of the invasion - Paul Wolfowitz.

Is there something wrong with this picture?


Iranian Election: Cooked Data

I'm not going to spend much time on the Iranian election. I am not an expert on either Iran or the Middle East. Alas, I do know a thing or two about cooked data, from both the technical high school I attended and my four years at MIT. Even the saintly monk Mendel, the father of genetics, is alleged to have "cooked" his published data (altered the data to fit his hypothesis). Just Google "Mendel cooked data" and you'll get an eyeful of the still-unsettled argument (was it Mendel or an assistant who did the cooking? What would his motive have been?)

Anyway, even I, even in high school, knew better than the draw the line first, the match the "data" to the prediction. Apparently, Iranian election authorities (at least some of whom probably went to MIT), apparently did about as well in 18.02 as I did. Which is to say, not very well at all.

Even if a poll showed support for the incumbent, it doesn't excuse releasing fake numbers.

Good Cartoon on the subject


  • "I do not think that intensification of traditional supervision and regulation of large financial firms will effectively address the too-big-to-fail problem" - Gary Stern, President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis addressing Congress.

The Proposal

3.5 stars out of 5

Unlike, say, Land of the Lost¸ this film was actually funny. Spit-take funny. Laugh every few minutes funny, rather than a-few-laughs-an-hour funny. Start with an all-star cast: Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds as the girl and the guy, Mary Steenburgen and Craig T. Nelson as the parents and Betty White as the grandmother. Mix in the classic romantic comedy setup: they hate each other until they love each other. By the way, my daughter Rae pointed out that there's a trend in these films, where part of the process of winning over the woman is meeting the man's family (like Dan In Real Life and What Happens In Vegas). Clearly, she is older than he is; in real life 45 to 33, and while the issue is never addressed directly in the film, I think the gap is hinted to be larger. At last, a reverse Sean Connery! An older woman with a younger man where it isn't creepy! I don't think the woman being 12 years older is a bad idea (although I think the woman being six years older than the man is perfect, for reasons that will be obvious to those of you who know me). One last thing: pats on the back to writer Pete Chiarelli and director Anne Fletcher. At nearly every inflection point in the story, the chose the non-obvious direction. I mean, overall, they had to follow the mandatory American romantic comedy story arc, but they made a lot of clever and interesting choices along the way. One final note; watching the film, I thought, "Sitka, Alaska looks cool." So imagine my surprise when I found all the locations were shot in New England! (Check out Betty White in this hilarious gag video

The Taking of Pelham 123

2.5 stars out of 5

I have to go with the majority of reviews I've read; the question here is why? Why remake a perfectly good film if you can't make it better in some way? I mean, of course, the special effects are better, the acting is mind-bogglingly better, the color is better, the cinematography is better, the editing is better... but. Isn't movie making about telling the story? Nothing about the story got better. The only reason this movie isn't less than two stars is that it is hard not to enjoy Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Even if all they are doing is talking. This could have been a nice, interesting art film--two guys with microphones screwing with each other. But that isn't this film. Go if you love the actors, or you're a big fan of depictions of New York City on the screen. Otherwise, fuggedaboutit. A not very thrilling thriller.

Oh, and for the other subway fans in the audience, there is no abandoned Roosevelt Station under the Waldorf Astoria. There is a siding under the hotel, part of the Amtrak lines from Grand Central Terminal. The elevator from the track opens up to the outside, not in the guts of the hotel as the movie implies. And there is an abandoned Roosevelt station--in Queens. But no secret subway stop below the Waldorf. Just so you don't waste your time checking, as I did.