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Living In The Moment

I am pretty sure I have used this headline before, but it is a subject much on my mind in the middle of my 58th year. There are storm clouds gathering on the horizon for any number of reasons. Those of you who are older than me know what I mean, and those who are younger don't want to know. There are issues of my health and of those I love that will come to a head sooner rather than later. At my age, mortality begins to seem like a real prospect, rather than a theoretical one. And the worst thing is that, while you can prepare intellectually for things you know are going to happen, emotionally they still knock you for a loop.

At a less personal level, I fear for the Republic, the moreso since I have invested seven years in teaching eighth graders about it. We may be as polarized today as we were in the years before the American Civil War. I almost wrote, "but this time the split is not so clearly geographical," but on reflection, I realized that's not true. The same 12 states that bailed out last time (Civil War, 1861) are still the dissenters, along with a handful of mountain states. They may think we're the dissenters, but we outnumber them, just as we did last time, although they have parity in the Senate, just as they did last time, which allows them to throttle progress, just as the did in the 1850s. I tell my students that the issue of secession was settled once and for all by the sacrifice of the 600,000 men killed and wounded in the Civil War (equivalent to 6 million today), but I wonder if it was settled.

Ignorance of history, of course, contributes to the situation. For the governor of Mississippi to say, as did GOP Bigwig Haley Barbour, that the civil war was not about slavery, when the Mississippi Causes of Secession clearly says it was, is both scary and appalling. George Orwell's Memory Hole is alive and well, and apparently Barbour has one in his office. Next thing you know, all the copies of the document will disappear, or be rewritten so they're about taxes and sovereign state governments. In recent years, I've tried not to get so worked up about such crap.

Which brings me back around to the title of this item. Living in the moment is not only the best revenge, it's the only way to maintain one's sanity. In the words of the serenity prayer, ""Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." Or, as one of my ed school teachers once put it, "The past is history, the future is a mystery. That's why they call it the present." Sometimes, I try to convince Vicki that what I do is not fruitless fretting about the future, but rather contingency planning. Somehow, each of us in this world need to figure out how to plan but not fret.

One way to do that is to be in the moment, that tired old shibboleth of Yoga and Buddhism. It got tired because it is true. A seminar leader once said, "Some say you are only as old as the amount of time you have spent in the moment. By that measure, my real age is 4 even though my chronological age is 40." I am probably three. But in the year to come, I hope to grow older. My life is great right now. I must cherish that now, so that I don't regret not cherishing it in the future. What could be worse than to look back and say, "I didn't know how good I had it."

Political Briefs

  • Harold and Clay
    This is what happens when an American government ignores the Fifth Amendment. It will be interesting to see if a modicum of compensation (which is much different than justice in this situation) can be obtained at the trial which starts in a few months. The difference between this and federal non-judicial officials deciding they can murder Americans with impunity is precisely nothing in a constitutional sense (see recent articles in The NY Times and The Washington Post about Pres. Obama continuing to agree with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that Obama can order the murder of American citizens whenever he feels like it without any judicial process of any kind).
  • Tone Deaf
    First of all, keep in mind that Warsaw airport was closed. President Obama could only have attended the state funeral if he had decided to motorcade up from, say, Rome to Warsaw (check a map!). Otherwise, no way he could have gotten there.
    Still, given that there are more persons of Polish ancestry in Chicago than any place except Warsaw, one wonders how this will play with his base. "Transparency" according to George W. Obama means more golf games (32nd game since Jan. 20, 2009) than press conferences. Shades of Eisenhower (except for being relatively clueless about control of the military, national security, or the conduct of foreign policy). Hint: if you're going to "skip" a funeral such as this one, at least sign a book of condolences and stay off the course the day of the funeral. By the way, from Jan. 20, 2001 to Jan. 20, 2009, George W. Bush played golf 24 times.
  • Discount Rate Mismatch
    Great takeoff on a speech:
    "if we’re lucky – we’ll get a modern day Pecora who will haul Lloyd Blankfein to the witness stand, and taunt him till he breaks. Imagine, for a moment, Mr. Blankfein losing his cool while ranting in Jack Nicholson’s voice . . .

    "You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth. Son, we live in a country with an investment gap. And that gap needs to be filled by men with money. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Middle Class Consumer? Goldman Sachs has a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Lehman and you curse derivatives. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what we know: that Lehman’s death, while tragic, probably saved the financial system. And that Goldman’s existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves pension funds. You don’t want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want us to fill that investment gap. You need us to fill that gap.

    "We use words like credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligation, and securitization… We use these words as the backbone of a life spent investing in something. You use ‘em as a punchline. We have neither the time nor the inclination to explain ourselves to a commoner who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very credit we provide, and then questions the manner in which we provide it! We’d rather you just said thank you and paid your taxes on time. Otherwise, we suggest you get an account and start trading. Either way, we don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!"
  • Goldman Sachs: Too Big To Obey The Law
    MIT Prof. Simon Johnson again supports PSACOT editorial of February 2009 calling for reducing size of big banks and otherwise controlling them.

    "Our biggest banks, in effect, have become too big to be held accountable before the law."

    "And we can only hold firms accountable, in both political and legal terms, if they are not too big."

    (see fourth point from a previous posting of mine here)

    What Should The President Say

    Also, our ambassador in Germany: Is he the Ambassador from the US or Goldman Sachs?
  • "Murder By Spreadsheet"


4 stars out of 5

The important thing for you to know about this film is that the previews do not do it justice. The violence perpetrated by the 11-year-old girl whose nom de superhero is HitGirl is extreme, deadly, blood-gushing comic book violence. This film is not a romp, it's a bloodbath. Having said that, if you saw the New Yorker review, as I did, you might believe there is a latent pedophilia theme here. To make this connection, you would have to equate sex and violence, as the reviewer does. Alas, I feel this equation says more about his sex life than it does the film. There is no sex in this film, and no latent pedophilia. Dozens of murders, including death by Gatling gun and bazooka, but no sex.  Also, nerd fantasy fulfillment, which appealed to me as a nerd. There were rumors I was gay in high school too, but they never worked out as well for me as they do for the protagonist. I saw this with my 29-year-old daughter, and we both agreed that nearly every plot twist was unpredictable, and that it was, hands down, the weirdest film either of us had ever seen. You may have thought (as I once did) that Team America, Brazil, Being John Malkovich and Mulholland Drive were weird, but this one has them beat. By the way, since no one name-checks Nicholas Cage for being in this film: Nicholas Cage was in this film. As was Sherlock Holmes villain Mark Strong. The rest of the cast are relative unknowns.

Death At a Funeral (2010)

3.5 stars out of 5

It's been a long time since I saw the 2007 Frank Oz version of Death at a Funeral, but I remember it well enough to be certain that 2010 Neil LaBute version is as close to a scene-by-scene remake as makes no never mind. In fact, the same little person, Peter Dinklage, appears in both films which is delicious irony, and leads to one of the great lines in the movie, "Our dad was having sex with a guy who would fit in his pocket, and you're angry because he's white?" Alas, the line was played too flat, but still, good times. If it seems a little soon for a remake, remember that this time the funeral is in America with black people rather than Britain with white people. I particularly enjoyed the fact that there was absolutely minimal black stereotyping; this was America Cosby-style, with a black doctor and a black author among the guests. The film features Martin Lawrence and Chris Rock as the battling brothers at the center of the funeral, but also has star turns by Danny Glover, Tracy Morgan, Zoe Saldana and Luke Wilson. Death at a Funeral has buckets of cringe-worthy humor of embarrassment, but is overall it is a hilarious romp, and is worth seeing, even if you have seen the original.

Dalton: Sex and the Supremes, Dern on Stewart and Fox News, Dan Grobstein File

Richard Dalton is disgusted, as am I, by the right wing effort to insure that Obama does not appoint a gay judge to the Supreme Court. Register your discontent here.

Jon Stewart continues his ongoing struggle with Fox News as noted by Daniel Dern.

Dan Grobstein File

I saw Jeff Greenfield interview Brian Williams at the 92nd St. Y last night.

One interesting point that Williams brought up is that he wonders when we as a country decided that it was ok to let our infrastructure go. He mentioned that he comes off the West Side Highway on the way to work and takes 50th street and "from river to river" it is as bad as any road in Kandahar. He doesn't answer his own question with the correct answer which is the Republicans have starved government and there is no money. He said that Robert Moses had built all this stuff and hardly anything has been done since he died. Greenfield said that he should read "The Power Broker" before he starts talking about Moses and Williams said he had.

I'm not happy with his ideas of what makes a good news broadcast. He says they try to be fair and right down the middle. Brian Williams is happy if he viewer emails are half accusing him of being left and half accusing him of being right leaning.

But that isn't a good method. If one interest group has moved the acceptable topics of discussion all the way to the right and the other party has stayed moderate or even moved a bit to the right itself, the middle is now way over to to the right and what was once moderate is now "left wing".

He isn't a fan of blogs because they don't do original reporting. I'm sure that there are blogs that just scream about things, but the ones I read are written by educated people who link to the original reporting (so that you can read it) and they are analyzing and discussing and talk about the issues. He does like some of the blogs specializing in the Supreme Court.

Williams didn't mention any blogs that I read, but did mention that he has read "Captain's Quarters" and "Drudge Report"--both right wing blogs.

He doesn't tweet which is a mark in his favor. They did talk about the tea party demonstrators. My eyes glazed over.

Brian Williams also reads Huffington Post (Huff Post) which I guess is his liberal counterweight. Maybe Arianna has a dependably "liberal" take on the news, but she lets anybody post to the thing. He didn't say who he reads on the Huffington Post.

Jeff Greenfield apologetically brought up Talking Points Memo by Josh Marshall who does original reporting. He said you know what part of the political spectrum he is coming from but he's learned things from the blog. And also he reads Instapundit and has learned things from Glenn Reynolds. He didn't say that you know what part of the political spectrum Instapundit is coming from though. Very important to be fair and balanced I guess.

In answer to a question about coverage of the run up to the war in Iraq he said that he would like to be on a panel to discuss it but you have to remember that Congress gave Dubya blank check after blank check. Greenfield mentioned that the McClatchy papers had a very skeptical take in their coverage, but they didn't have an outlet in NY or Washington and maybe if they did things would have been different. I'm sure that the blank check from Congress had to do with the news coverage that they were seeing which was total rah rah rah war war war.

I'm sure that you remember that the UN inpsectors were in the country and Scott Ritter was saying there are no WMDs (until they shut him up with a child molestation charge). And it was obvious to me that Dubya was going to invade no matter what. And I was aware of the problem the Israelis had been having with suicide bombers & I don't know why it came as such a surprise to Rumsfeld and the Defense Dept. especially after our troops raced past known weapons dumps and left the super explosives that Saddam had gotten for his nuclear bomb triggers. This stuff was under UN seal and we raced right past it and it was stolen.

At the time I didn't think Saddam has WMDs but I was sure that he was working on them, but he was totally bottled up by the nofly zone and the trade embargo that I wasn't worrying about it. It turns out that he didn't really have a research program going anymore anyway.

Next week Jeff Greenfield is going to interview Mark Halperin as part of his "In the News" series. In two weeks Eliot Spitzer. When they announced upcoming talks before Greenfield took the stage the audience tittered when Spitzer's name was mentioned. Greenfield is going to interview Newt Gingrich next month (I've seen him. I don't have a ticket) but I guess he's a very serious politician even though he's cheated on 2 wives.

Politial Briefs

Special "Nothing Personal" Edition of the column; politics and letters!

  • The Cover-Up
  • Sen. McConnell Is Wrong
    "You cannot responsibly propose what Senator McConnell is now putting forward: Do nothing and later on we will be tough – despite the fact that, at the key moment of decision, the consequences of being tough on a failed global megabank (and its creditors) would be catastrophic. This is the true road to disaster."
  • The Derivatives' Dealers Club
    Useful background
  • Pack Of Fools
    quoting Tolstoy:
  • ""The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him.""

    "Free financial markets are supposed to create efficient prices. Every argument about the benefits of financial markets (optimal allocation of capital, liquidity, etc.) depends on this one point. But the prices in this market were being set based on the dealers’ own interests. Think about that."

    " Higher risk measures mean more capital means lower returns; all the internal pressures are to underestimate risk. The incentives of the system breed incompetence, and everyone benefits in the short term."

    "Eventually, Morgan Stanley lost $9 billion on the trade. In December 2007, CEO John Mack tried to explain the loss on an investor call. "The hedges didn’t perform adequately in extraordinary market condition of late October and November," he said (p. 217). This wasn’t a hedge; it was a long-short bet. But on Wall Street, it’s second nature to call everything a hedge. When pressed by an analyst (from Goldman), Mack punted ("I am very happy to get back to you on that when we have been out of this, because I can’t answer that at the moment"). As Lewis said, "The meaningless flow of words might have left the audience with the sense that it was incapable of parsing the deep complexity of Morgan Stanley’s bond trading business. What the words actually revealed was that the CEO himself didn’t really understand the situation."

    "This is not a finely-tuned machine for allocating capital and fueling the real economy. It’s a system whose rules have been twisted to allow the few smart people to get rich by screwing their customers or their employers."
  • Sen. McConnell is Wrong, Sen. Kaufman Is Right
    "The resolution authority will not end "too big to fail" for large complex cross-border financial institutions. It simply will not – if you think differently, just go talk to our G20 counterparts, as I have done. There is no cross-border resolution mechanism, there is no international process to negotiate one, and there is no chance you will seesuch a processin the next 20 years."

    "Again, Senator Kaufman nails this:
    "Given the consequences of failing to do enough to prevent another financial crisis, the safest thing to do today is for Congress to put an end to too big to fail. If you believe these mega-banks are too big, if you reject the choice of bankruptcy that will lead to a recession or depression, then breaking them up is the logical answer. That’s the only way that greatly diminishes the future probability of financial disaster. The Great Depression of the 1930s must be avoided at all costs.
  • Sherlock McChrystal Finally Notices Sun Rises In East
  • Caddell and Schoen Concern Troll As If They Were Karl Rove
    "And by the way, that agenda that the Clinton administration pursued from 1995-2000 really did wonders for the Democratic Party, didn’t it? Do these guys remember 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2004?"
  • Return of the Election Thief In Chief? Karl Rove
  • Magnetar CEO Alec Litowitz: Proud Democrat
    "So make a horse-racing analogy: Magnetar formed a syndicate, and got a ton of suckers to bet on a horse they were backing. Then, in secret, they bet against the horse. Bad enough. But it gets worse: They crippled their own horse, to make sure the suckers lost and they won! (And then it gets worse: We taxpayers covered the bets for the suckers...)"
    Partial record of political contributions by principal of Magnetar
  • Big and Connected
    ""You’re a young guy, early in your career. You should think long and hard before issuing the report. We are the largest guarantor of New York state and New York city bonds. In fact, we’re the largest guarantor of municipal debt in the country. Let’s put it this way: We have friends in high places.""
    "(The next year, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer began investigating Ackman for market manipulation, but Ackman was never charged with anything.) It doesn’t get much more clear than that."
  • Feds finally get around to starting to do their job with an arguably weak theory (which may prevail (barely) until the Supreme Court opines)
    SEC Sues Goldman Sachs
    Inspector Renaud and Sam are both shocked.
    Condi Rice and friends (Ben Bernanke, Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Tim Geithner) could not have foreseen any of this. Ask them, they'll tell you.
    Other Banks Did Same As Goldman
  • Michael Lewis (author of "The Big Short") On Wall Street
    Lewis on Barack Obama:
    "He’s been captured by his banker, just like the ordinary American’s captured by their stockbroker. He’s been buffaloed by the complexity of it all, he doesn’t have time to sort it out for himself, and he has to trust the people who seem to know. The alternative is for him to set off on his own in a quixotic quest to reform the financial system without having any experience of the system. It’s sort of like the presidential version of regulatory capture, that he is at the mercy of the people who really don’t have probably his long-term best interests at heart but who seem to know what they’re talking about."

    One wonders whether Lewis has in mind people like Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel (D. - Magnetar), Obama's Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (R. - Goldman Sachs), and Obama's economic adviser Larry Summers (D. - International Swaps and Derivatives Association).
  • Portugal to Follow Greece?
  • The Oracle Of Kansas City
    President of Federal Reserve Bank coincidentally agrees with PSACOT editorial of February 2009.

    "On whether the United States needs megabanks to compete globally:
    "That is a fantasy — I don’t know how else to describe it. Our strengths will be from having a strong industrial economy. We will have financial institutions that are large enough to give us influence in the markets but not so large that they’re too big to fail. . . .

    "The United States became a financial center not because we had large institutions but because we had a strong industrial economy with a good working financial system across the United States — not just highly-concentrated in one market area."

    "There was one thing I didn’t agree with. Hoenig seems to say that if you break up the big banks, the market will determine what size they should be. I think that if you broke up the big banks and left them to their own devices, they would reaggregate into new megabanks — precisely because of the funding advantages that you get from being too big to fail. So I think there needs to be a size limit that is actively policed by the government."

Letters: Craig Reynolds Checks In, Ecogirl, Dan Grobstein File

Craig Reynolds Checks In:

A friend writes:

This video gives a new meaning to "tickling a monkey." Well, I guess it gives a literal meaning...Anyway, a slow baby lori like you've NEVER seen before

Another friend, let's call her Ecogirl, offers some tips:

  • Reverse your kitchen baggies and clean so you can keep using.
  • Reverse the papers on your computer print-outs so you can use again.
  • Reverse your file folders and use again.
  • Buy bio-degradable bags and put in your flower/garden clippings and veggie discards.
  • Eat vegetarian meals as often as you can. Raising farm animals contributes to over 50% of our pollution.

Dan Grobstein File

  • An Interesting Gadget
    Your laptop:
    Newer models of laptops manufactured by companies like Apple and Lenovo contain accelerometers—motion sensors meant to detect whether the computer has been dropped. If the computer falls, the hard drive will automatically switch off to protect the user’s data. "As soon as I knew there were these low-cost sensors inside these accelerometers, I thought it would be perfect to use them to network together and actually record earthquakes," geoscientist Elizabeth Cochran of the University of California at Riverside says. So a few years ago, Cochran got in touch with Jesse Lawrence, a colleague at Stanford. They whipped up a program called the Quake-Catcher Network. It’s a free download that runs silently in the background, collecting data from the computer’s accelerometer and waiting to detect an earthquake.

A Weekend Away

Vicki and I spent a lovely weekend away, first at Bodega Bay, then in Calistoga. We’ve been going to Bodega for nearly the entire length of our marriage, and we’ve always enjoyed staying in rental houses at Bodega Harbor. In the last few years, its been a bit difficult for me to stay in houses with no Internet access, but I get by (there were three Wifi nets  in range—all with passwords! What’s the deal? It’s not like extra usage costs them anything…)

We got up there Friday afternoon, stopping at Whole Foods in Petaluma for a late lunch at the deli counter, then off to Cypress Romance—just the right size for two people. We watched September Issue, the documentary about the September 2007 issue of American Vogue. I would not like to spend much time in the same room as Anna Wintour, that’s for sure.

Saturday we went to Duncan’s Mills, where we had lunch at the always terrific Cape Fear restaurant. Vicki checked out the small shops that surround it (the General Store went out of business!), while I stayed in the car and listened to the podcast of Emma Thompson on BBC Radio 4’s Dessert Island Discs. We walked for an hour on the beach, then saw the subtitled German language film “The Harmonizers,” based on a true story. If you love a capella, you’ll love this film. (OK, there’s a piano, but it’s really a capella arrangements)

We made a lovely salad for dinner (and enough extra for lunch Sunday) then had egg salad for breakfast Sunday. We read the Sunday papers (Chronicle and Press Democrat) from stem to stern in front of a roaring fire, then took Mark West road from Santa Rosa over to Calistoga for a tour of Castello Di Amorosa.

Vicki had seen an article on this Napa Valley castle/winery when it first opened in 2007, then another mention recently. We reserved two spaces on the 3pm tour, with the reserve wine and the chocolate (worth the upgrade). The place is absolutely amazing; as they say at the Michelin Guide, worth a special trip. The owner has constructed a 13th century  Italian castle.  Not by importing one brick for brick, but by importing, among other things, bricks from Europe.  Two hundred year old bricks. He used Napa stone, but not concrete—the grout is made as grout was made in the day, from lime. The metalwork was done by a foundry in Italy. Take the guided tour—it is worth it!