Archive for the Goodbye to All That category

October 31st, 2010

Serfdom in Spain /
Ralph Nader finds US
not far behind

Thisis how the serfs of Russia were created, by bank debt and law.

Ralph Nader sounds the same theme, quoting Dreiser among others: “The government has ceased to function. The corporations are the government.”

October 24th, 2010

The eBook Cometh

Nice bit from the brit Prospect:

Do writers need paper?

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Let me eblaborate if I may:

Does the technological civilization need books?

Modernity and the novel were coeval. (Hamlet was the first novel, I like to say.)

What happens to that civilization when the novel is cut off like a dead limb?

Will it still be able to walk and talk? Will it go mad?

The 21st century in America so far suggests no, no and yes.

October 17th, 2010

Google blacklists documentary
about need and means of
change we desperately need

Curious. But Google won’t link to the website for 2012: TIME FOR CHANGE, a great documentary about, in a word, environmentalism, and the need for and possibilities for civilizational change.

Here’s the URL that Google won’t give you:

http://www.2012timeforchange.com/

The film is showing in Los Angeles and New York. Go see if you can, or put it on your rental/stream que.

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October 4th, 2010

Allen Ginsberg Moment:
An old cool interview
and a magical new film
about the Genii of the City

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Recollections and thoughts about the new film HOWL are on the way.

Meanwhile peeps can comment on the man and the poem and the movie — and a very local interview from 1988 — here below.

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September 26th, 2010

The Bonds of August:
Refinancing the Twin Towers
on the eve of destruction

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James Bamford’s latest book, The Shadow Factory, about the National Security Agency shortly before and since the 9/11 attacks, leaves his first two re same (The Puzzle Palace and Body of Secrets) seeming quaint, jolly, the Good Old Days. That Obama has only elaborated what Bush-Cheney began means we are surely beyond the pale and point of return.

But for the moment, a look back, to the weeks preceding the attacks.

Mr Bamford writes that:

– Mohammed Atta & co bought their airline tickets August 25-29, 2001.

– Up until then, across the summer, Atta had been refusing pressure from his Al Qaeda contact to set the date of the attack and git it done.

The first point is in tune with the FBI’s public chronology of the alleged terrorists’ actions. But the second point is new to my eyes.

Mr Bamford writes that Atta, on July 8, with all his fellow hijackers now safely on US soil, flew to Spain to meet Ramzi Binalshibh — “his former roommate and the man who was helping bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed coordinate the operation from his base in Germany.” (p59)

Binalshibh told Atta that bin laden wanted the attacks carried out as soon as possible because he was concerned about the large number of operatives in the US at the same time. But Atta said he was still unable to provide an exact date for the attacks because he was too busy organizing the arriving soldiers. In addition, he still needed to coordinate the timing of the flights so that the crashes would occur simultaneously. Atta said he needed about five to six more weeks before he could provide an accurate attack date. (p60)

The rationale for delay seems rather weak.

Note that Mr Bamford does not provide a single citation for the chapter in which he tells this story of how Atta finally came to select the date and set the attacks in motion. Given Bamford’s history, readers seem invited to assume the sources are NSA intercepts (phone calls and emails) and deep background interviews with the NSAyers who handled them.

This newly public story of the date’s selection folds into old thoughts about the leasing and securitization of the Twin Towers, a refinancing project with curious consequences which — in contrast to Atta — was racing across that summer toward the day of infamy in September.

So then.

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Two things to note about the date of the attacks:

– The nexus of military exercises those early days of that week in September was such that most of the east coast was stripped of jet fighter protection. (Webster Tarpley’s book is perhaps the best source for this.)

– the complex deal that financed the long-term leasing of most of the Trade Center by Silverstein Properties Inc had only recently closed — on August 21 — when the Twin Towers were securitized in a bond issuance.

Housekeeping note: The leasing by SPI (agreed to in the spring and finalized on July 24) and the bond sale by its banker that followed in August, each encompassed WTC buildings 1 and 2 (the towers) and 4 and 5 — four of the seven that comprised the Trade Center complex. (References henceforth to “Twin Tower bonds” are to the whole package, ie, bonds based on the securitization of buildings 1, 2, 4, and 5.)

Not part of the deal were: Building 3 — a big hotel on site. Building 6 — the US Custom House. And building 7 — the Spook House, where about every police and secret police agency one might call to mind rented space.

WTC 7 is the odd man out for a number of reasons. It was not truly part of the WTC complex, having been built across the street during the 80s — by none other than Larry Silverstein, the principal of SPI. The building was then refinanced by a (separate) securitization and bond sale in 1999. And, of course, shortly after 5 pm on 9/11, the building, having suffered only minor damage in the attacks, suddenly collapsed in its footprint in what looks to have been a professional demolition.

And now, our featured presentation.

There are three details worth noting about the August securitization of WTC 1-2-4-5.

(1) The SECURITIZATION was RUSHED and SHABBILY DONE.

In particular, the insurance coverage for the buildings required by the securitization was inconsistent with the coverage required by the lease. And a good deal of the insurance coverage stipulated was not contracted before the securitization closed — even though such coverage was a precondition to the sale of the bonds.

And note that time just kept on flying: A big chunk of the stipulated insurance remained uncontracted when the jetliners arrived on 9/11.

All of this came out at the two insurance trials subsequent to the attacks. The insurance broker for SPI testified at gory length as to the chaos and unprecedented (in his experience) late summer rush to get the bond deal done without dotting Is and crossing Ts. (The best sources here are the insurance trade journals, which covered the trials in depth.)

(2) The KEY MONEY on the LEASE was SUBSTANTIAL.

When SPI finalized its 99-year managerial lease of 1-2-4-5 on July 24, it paid $491 million in cash to the Port Authority in key money.

SPI borrowed borrowed this key money (and more, $563 mm) the same day from its anchor banker, GMAC, the then-proud new-age investment bank run by General Motors. Henceforth much of the monthly rent paid by WTC tenants would go not to the PA or SPI but rather to GMAC, as interest on the loan.

EXCEPT that, a month later, GMAC got all its money back in a lump — by selling $563 million in Twin Tower bonds to institutional investors worldwide. Henceforth much of the monthly WTC rents would flow to these numerous, scattered investors, tagged as interest on their new bonds.

That is: The whole point of the securitization of 1-2-4-5 was to make GMAC whole by transferring the SPI key-money loan to the new bondholders.

(3) The SECURITIZATION had an UNUSUALLY LARGE RESERVE FUND.

That is, an unusually large amount of the proceeds of the bond sale were held in reserve by the bond trustee (Wells Fargo), rather than delivered to the issuer of the bonds (a new shell vehicle, more or less a “trust,” created to issue the bonds on behalf of GMAC).

This reserve fund came in handy when the business-basis of the bonds went up in smoke twenty days after they were sold — the most dramatic instance of “collateral decay” in finance history, one imagines. Despite that calamity, the reserve allowed the bonds to continue paying interest until insurance money started to dribble in.

Perhaps the import of the three points noted above is as clear as mud.

The gist is this: When the bonds were sold on August 21, it completed a two-step deal that:

(a) via the lease, took the Port Authority of NY & NJ — which owned the Trade Center and until July 2001 had always managed it — off the hook for a lot of headaches and for the next five years of rent on 1-2-4-5.

(b) via the August securitization, took GMAC — which had financed the leasing with (in essence) a bridge loan — off the hook.

The Port Authority was off the hook in two simple respects:

(i) The $491 million in key money it received at lease signing constituted over five years worth of rent on 1-2-4-5. If by chance the buildings were to disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, well, the PA had five years to rebound. And as for the headaches …

(ii) The 99-year managerial lease transferred responsibility for rebuilding in case of mishap from the PA to SPI.

In short sum: The SPI lease had the effect of cushioning the Port Authority from the blast of 9/11.

And the bank that provided the financing to make it happen backed out of the deal twenty days before the jetliners arrived.

Readers of the news wondering or already persuaded that controlled demolition was employed on 9/11 might surmise that somebody wanted the Twin Towers to come down that day, but nobody wanted to destroy the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in the process.

The leasing & securitization, willy nilly, served that end, by transferring the lion’s share of the risk of owning WTC 1-2-4-5 across the next five years from the PA to the bondholders, the insurance companies and SPI.

Funny — The first interest payment on the bonds was made on September 10. One imagines a proud bondholder, early the next morning, hanging up after confirming the payment with his broker and turning to his wife — “Honey, we got a piece of the Rock!” — while she aghast over the ironing board watches the North Tower burn.

And interesting — The Twin Tower bonds never defaulted. Interest continued to be paid out of the reserve fund, and then the bonds were called and cashed out early, when enough insurance money came in and was approved for the purpose. The bonds were built stronger than the towers, one might say.

To return, then, to the business of selecting a date.

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As seen above, circa July 9 in Spain, Atta told Binalbshih he needed another five or six weeks to pick a date. In emails across the subsequent weeks (Bamford writes) Atta:

suggested that the attacks not happen until after the first week in September, when Congress reconvened. [ED: Again the rationale seems weak.] For months Binalbshih had been communicating bin Laden’s impatience and his desire for a date for the operation, and by mid-August Atta was ready to give it to him. (p71)

About three or five business days before closing a securitization, the “pricing” of the deal occurs. This is the final negotiation among the bankers, the rating agency analysts and (usually) the institutional investors who will buy the bulk of the bonds, which process, when complete, fills in all the blanks — dates, dollar amounts and percentage figures — in tune with current interest-rate and other market variables.

So — in Bamford’s “mid August,” when Atta was finally ready to give Binalbshih a date — the Twin Tower bonds were priced. And days later they were sold, on August 21, leaving GMAC whole and closing the two-step process of leasing the Trade Center for 99 years.

Then, Bamford writes:

With the date now set in stone, Atta again flew up to Newark [on August 23] to meet with Hazmi and begin coordinating the complex task of picking just the right seats on just the right flights on just the right type of aircraft … (p 71)

We all recall, I hope, Atta’s picture on the Able Danger corkboard in the Pentagon.

And anyone who has read Welcome to Terrorland by Daniel Hopsicker has reason to believe that Atta was playing at least two sides of the table in the so-called intelligence world.

So readers of the news may wonder:

– if the securitization was rushed and shabbily done because someone with the power to influence it, and with a wish to get GMAC off the hook, knew that the window in early September when the Air Force would be elsewhere was fast approaching; and

– if that same or a similar someone made sure that the reserve fund was fat enough to pay the interest on the Twin Tower bonds for a year or two; and

– if, in order to hit that window in September and to give GMAC time to close its deal, all across the summer the attacks were delayed — frustrating Al Qaeda central — by Atta’s colleagues/controllers somewhere within the world wide web of so-called intelligence operators. Maybe, for instance, the “Pentagon lawyers” who, we are told, turned off Able Danger in 2000 due to concerns for the civil rights of its targets.

Even if all those IFs are in fact counterfactual — it’s fascinating to learn (assuming Bamford is accurate) that Atta organized his calendar such that it fell into sync with those of the Air Force and the WTC leasing project, even as Al Qaeda Central pressed for attacks in summer.

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September 10th, 2010

Counsel
from Nissim Ezekiel

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COUNSEL
For Shri Hariji, Who Said It

Whether you believe or not
Think as if you do
Stop the blind effort

Ask yourself what you need
Success as the moment
Is not in your interest

Turn to silence, nothingness
Where you are
Is where you have to be

Know, you are not wise
This is difficult
Grasp your folly

And you grasp yourself
What you have eaten
Is merely unripe fruit

So, now, learn to fast
Do without, be absent
Keep the eyes closed

Keep the mind steady
What you will see
You will also understand

No visions, except in darkness
Listen to the voice
That is not your own

Then move again
Without remorse or guilt
Love is more concerned

About your fate
Than you have ever been
That is why you have survived

Express your gratitude
By giving what you have to give
You may get nothing in return

And bear your restlessness with grace

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Nizzim Ezekiel
Latter-Day Psalms, 1982

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Nissim died in 2004. Here are two brief memorials.

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September 2nd, 2010

Down by the riverside and study
war no more

As part of the protracted transition back to Manhattan, I just sold all my Avalon Hill war games to an enthusiast, cutting a tie to passionate childhood, wishing to lay burdens down by the riverside and study war no more.

August 25th, 2010

The Gadfly
January 23, 1980
St John’s College, Annapolis

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Came across this while spring cleaning, and the author of a deeply felt piece on the state of student-body politics therein suggested scanning was in order.

Here are legible scans. (Enlarge once they open in yer browser.) Eight pages cover to cover.

Page One

Page Two

Page Three

Page Four

Page Five

Page Six

Page Seven

Page Eight

August 22nd, 2010

August 21st, 2010

A terrible thing to waste

This new ad on the NY subway (like Starbucks) seems asking and aching for a stencil campaign.

The old NAACP (if memory serves) motto comes to mind: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I see it stenciled, shouting, across this wannabe actress’s face.

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The caption up top (clipped as I snapped the photo) reads in full: “Education for the Real World.”

Indeed:

– The world of Arne Duncan, our Secretary of Education, who spent the first decade of the New American Century turning five public schools in Chicago into ‘military academies.’ No need to even begin going through the motions of education. Just teach’em how to spit and shoot and salute and send them off to patrol the mideast.

– And the world of our First Lady — who a few weeks ago explained that America’s kids need to lose weight so they qualify for military service.

August 11th, 2010

Free their minds and their asses would follow

There’s general alarm about Net Neutrality going away.

I’ve been saying for ten years that our Owners would not allow the internet to go on in its free form. The surprise is that Google is the lead dog.

It’s rather like education itself, which was suddenly made plentiful and cheap post 1945, as a kind of Thank You card to the Citizen Soldier, and looking forward to decades in the US when skilled labor would otherwise be in short supply.

But by 1974 our Owners had realized that an educated working class is a pain in the ass. And the dawning Globalization would mean they didn’t need one.

The defamation and starvation of the public schools began, quite abruptly. Direct federal aid to colleges was frozen in the 80s and has never been thawed.

The Pesident of St John’s College in Annapolis, Christopher Nelson, spoke in public for five minutes about the Fed freeze at a fancy fundraiser in New York three years ago, in response to my question re same (itself a response to being told the news by a man who served on the SJC Board of Governors for 20 or 30 years).

Mr Nelson explained that, indeed, the face dollar amount of direct Fed aid was frozen, during the Reagantime, and now, degraded by inflation, gets spread across millions of more students.

Thus the Buying Power Per Student that SJC receives in Fed aid is a pittance of what it was when I was a student in the early 80s — a big part of the reason why tuition skyrocketed not long after we left. And the story, of course, is the same all over.

Put this together with the so-called pension reform of … 1987, if memory serves. (Defined Benefit plans out, Defined Contribution plans in. The 401k Casino.)

What could be clearer? Fordism died under the Reaganauts. Maybe “The Fourth World” is the best name for where most Americans are headed.

March 18th, 2010

Health Dare dead:
Dennis Kucinich gives up
“A dangerous moment …”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more remarkable interview from Washington.

This sad concession signals the death of the movement for health care reform in D.C that began during the Long Campaign and then crested — Who knew? — with Obama’s inauguration.

Poor Dennis looks dead on his feet.

This comes against news stories in the past two weeks reporting that Obama made explicit promises to the insurance companies last summer to reject a bill with a public plan.

The other shoe will drop with the hopeless wars, leaving Obama toast. Romney seems a shoe-in as successor.

Then we revisit Highway 61.

I was talking to someone in Dennis K’s office Thursday, suggesting that he might be more effective in Ohio, as a governor, working the angle he repeatedly holds hope out for in the interview here.

If he thought the same, his argument for voting Yes here would falter. He could go out with a significant NO, like Eliot Richardson and Wm Ruckelshaus in 1973, and use it as a rallying cry back home.

But I guess Dennis still thinks there is a reason to be in Washington. He chairs an important subcommittee. Although that comes and goes with the Donkey majority, and the latter is hardly a clinch in November.

It’s March 2010. Do you know where your future is?

March 16th, 2010

Third novel: Dying Days

It has begun.

What the Dice Man has joined may none put asunder.

If your brakes don’t work, smile as you go under.

worry

What’s he building in there?

This is actually a conversion of a screenplay, the antepenultimate, my fifth, from 2005, into a novel. Thought about doing it before. Now it seems to have gone and …

Oh brother.

The opening paragraph seems to be:

In June 2004, after five Medecins Sans Frontieres were found murdered in the middle of nowhere in Afghanistan, Aaron called, for the first time since coming to New York with Maya. Long out of touch had been the pattern of a friendship born and first aborted in Texas, then again at Duke, before settling down to disjointed maturity during years of criss-crossing work overseas. Since the rebirth of History the routine had been that to meet for coffee one went to Baghdad or Bosnia or Berlin.

That, or perhaps:

He would miss his turn.

And so on to the end.

If we shall suppose that writing lengthy bits that no one shall ever read is one of those offenses which, in the providence of Dog, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both Yea and Ney this terrible task as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living Dog always ascribe to Him?

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of lore may speedily pass away.

Yet, if Dog wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the pen man’s sore head and hands and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the quill shall be paid by another drawn by the horde, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the lord are true and righteous altogether.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as Dog gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

March 11th, 2010

Camus 50 years gone

Posted in Death, Goodbye to All That, Writing by ed

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President Sarkozy of France proposes to move the body from Lourmain, the little town where Camus tried to live and work in peace during his last decade, in the south, to the Pantheon in Paris. The notion seems to have caused a nasty stir.

January 18th, 2010

Gitmo Sgt blows whistle: Prisoner “suicides” were murder

Major piece in February’s Harper’s. Hats off to them.

The center does not hold.

Obama has done nothing but talk on this.

January 11th, 2010

The more things change …

Alfred Hitchcock presents …

… a fine elderly unemployed couple, about to be bounced out of their home, try to work things out.

… the trauma of losing your job.

January 8th, 2010

Daniel Ellsberg re Obama /
Bell helicopters in Vietnam & Predator drones in Pakghanistan

Another in Sibel Edmonds’ Boiling Frog interviews on the National Security Apparat.

Very worthwhile — as they’ve all been. This is number 18. She’s leading one of the most important discussions around.

Ellsberg is measured in assessing Obama, and even so the judgments are bleak. Syncs well with my own black-biled broodings.

Touches on the political consequences of allowing high hopes to fail for lack of leadership. Ellsberg doesn’t mention the Carter-Reaganism dynamic, but what he says brings it to mind.

And he puts the puzzle of the escalation decision in clear terms, observing that neither the top Pentagon brass, nor NS Advisor Jms Jones (retired four-star general), nor Rahm Emanuel — with the fine DC instincts and his eye on the 2010 elections — were pusihng the escalation. (Nor Biden.) And some were on record against it.

Is Obama more of a militarist than Petraeus, whose recent interview in Newsweek shows a mind less than persuaded of any successful outcome over there? Where did the decision come from?

Westmoreland and LBJ

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Recall Col. Flectcher Prouty’s history of the Pentagon’s war in Vietnam (which, note, began in 1965) — and which Prouty thinks began almost accidentally, with a big push by Textron and its lobbyists to get the Gov to start buying Bell “Huey” helicopters en masse.

As conglomerate Textron — then as now a major war supplier — was preparing a corporate takeover of Bell Helicopters, a guy from Yale working on Wall Street kept showing up at Prouty’s office atop the Air Force staff in the Pentagon — trying to sell the notion that tactical helicopters would revolutionize counterinsurgency ops …

The Air Force kept saying no. Finally somebody got to somebody on the Nat’l Security Council staff in the White House, and the order came across the river: Let’s buy some more helicopters — and let’s base them across the border from Laos, rather than where all the shootin’s going on. Yeah, let’s put them in Vietnam.

The Huey program was greenlighted — but under CIA auspices. Which perhaps rounds around to explain why a banker out of Yale was lead salesman.

The CIA had opened its first official spy store in Saigon in 1954 (post French defeat at Dien Bien Phu) but our involvement there reached back into the war, when the OSS helped to arm Ho’s nationalists against the Japanese. Some say that the same guys, now wearing CIA badges, including Ed Lansdale, were covertly on the ground again well before ’54, working again with locals but this time to oust the French.

However that may be, Prouty writes that each early CIA Huey base in Vietnam needed some 500 (if memory serves) pairs of Pentagon boots to provide pilots, maintenance, security and support.

And when the bases started drawing fire from local insurgents even more Advisors were needed to Keep the Peace.

Wasn’t long before 16,000 soldiers were in country, under CIA command, shooting at insurgents from behind barricades as the choppers bounced and bombed around the South as Lansdale & company tried to figure out how to win their hearts and minds.

Then, in late ’63, a new President took office persuaded that it was time to let the Pentagon clean house.

Obama and Stanley

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The obvious parallel is the CIA’s drone campaign, based in Afghanistan, attacking Pakistan, which began under lame duck Bush-Cheney, August 2008, rather late — perhaps to be sure it was online fait accompli before the new prez came in.

The latter again brings to mind the Bay of Pigs — in particular the panicked revisions to the plan that went on between November 1960, when Kennedy shocked the planners by defeating Nixon, and January when he took office.

Steps were taken to downsize the scheme (quite consciously beyond hope of success) and to persuade the new White House team that the raid had been approved by Eisenhower (not so — rather, by VP Nixon, who headed the CIA oversight committee in Ike’s White House).

The raid came 70 days into Kennedy’s presidency. He wasn’t quick enough to choke it off, but deserves great credit for frustrating the prime motive by refusing its gambit — ie, refusing to send in the Marines to rescue the raid (and execute regime change).

And, of course, he never escalated with the Pentagon in Vietnam. That came after Johnson won his ’64 election.

Obama within weeks of taking office enlarged the CIA drone program.

And now, against the advice and/or instincts of Jones, Mullen, Eikenberry, even it seems Petraeus (four four-star generals) as well as VP Biden and CoS Rahm, he’s escalating the war.

Ellsberg pointedly compares Obama’s decision to that of Johnson (under whom and closely with he worked) in 1965 — and sadly laughs at the notion of turning on a dime and getting out in July 2011. The commitment, he insists, cannot but be anything but indefinite re both time and manpower.

More than puzzling. Why did subordinate Stanley McChrystal win this policy debate? Why was he even involved in it?

And what is the War Aim over there? I STILL don’t see one, and neither it seems does the senior brass.

Let’s see, who makes the Predator drone? Expensive little bombs ….. Who’s their anchor banker …?

In the Land of the Blind …

January 5th, 2010

Money’s New Decade:
Tower of Babel,
Tuna or your House

Yesterday’s spectacular debut of the world’s tallest building — twice as tall (!) as the Trade Center towers were — in Dubai, whose related sovereign debt is number six on a recent list of Most Likely To Fails after its corporate sister pleaded poverty in December …

Leaves me speechless.

Floyd Norris managed to say something. Hear him, sigh.

And check out the business prospects for this white mammoth. Those prospects are nil, but Murdoch’s man closes with assurance that the “image of yesterday’s fireworks display” will surely mean alot to Dubai in years to come.

Meanwhile, farther east, into the creditor hemisphere, a single tuna sells for $177,000. In Japan. Our second biggest banker.

Back at the ranch, a prominent finance CEO today accused the Fed and Tsy of steadily buying stock futures during 2009 to ignite and prop the miraculous rally of March-November.

The money-management world is full of serious people who are certain this began in March 2003 — in an effort to support the (world?) war also set in motion that month by Bush-Cheney. “The Market That Will Not Go Down” then ran up despite news and experience in highly abnormal fashion until the weight of the credit crisis finally crushed it in October 2007.

Meanwhile, more mundanely, the media are full of forecasts for the year. Here is a quick summary of twelve prominent money minders, all foretelling doom as Obama cements his administration’s feet in the status quo ante on the finance front.

In same vein, the Times editors today forecasted doom for US real estate this year in light of Team Obama’s Do Nothing agenda.

Finance. Pakghanistan. Health Care. No Change We Need in any of these, and very little change at all.

Who would have thought, fourteen months ago?

“He went down with the ship.”

My own thoughts about the year ahead in the markets are almost entirely neutral, having been neutralized by the odd three years now past. The future is a mist and the postwar’s First World is as fragile as it has ever been. No reason for long-term confidence of any sort. Investments are all trades.

The stock market just had a fabulous, perhaps basically fraudulent, run, so one must be cautious. And yet if the combined forces, public and covert, of the Fed and Tsy and their international investors continue to juice the markets perhaps there’s some profit yet to be had in being long stocks.

My retirement account went all cash in early December, selling its gold fund FGLDX near peak (on the report of the November employment numbers, which juiced the dollar, breaking gold’s uptrend). Had already sold its China and Tech in May and summer (too early). And its energy by September. So the autumn was about 40% gold and 60% cash, until cashing out entirely in December.

Yesterday I stepped back in with some China. About 14% of the account. Rest is still cash.

Why China. Simply because it’s in a fundamentally sound position, bad news is less likely to appear here, or cash in reaction to flee from here, and the chart is somewhat more inviting than the others.

In my mother’s account of free cash I bought some CTL, the fourth-largest telecom in the US last time I looked, something of a takeover possibility, with a very healthy dividend and rather nice chart. I should have bought it before Christmas — had been watching — but was without an internet connection when the opportunity arose. I’m unhappy buying it here — 36.75 — but will be even less happy if it breaks out over $37, which bad news elsewhere is likely to make it do. The buy was a small lot, about a third of what one hopes to buy if things work out.

In short: I’m trying to get my head back in the morass.

Gold jumped the past two days as the dollar (which broke its downtrend late in the year) sank a bit — but then gold sold off this afternoon and its bulls seem flummoxed again, after 36 hours of unrestrained crowing.

The big news here is Friday’s December employment numbers, which will clarify the dollar (and thus gold) picture. I will be looking for the right time to get back into gold. Perhaps already missed the best time, but there’s plenty of upside left if the bull thesis has merit. Gold’s LONG-TERM prospects seem secure, up up and up as the postwar First World continues its descent into the maelstrom for wont of political will to regulate capital and large corporations.

But it’s not clear yet that the dollar’s late-year rebound is done. I tend to think not, and thus have done nothing. If Friday’s numbers are unexpectedly not bad, the dollar should resume its rise and the time to restock gold will have been pushed further into the future. If the numbers are unexpectedly poor, the dollar may roll over and gold go off again to the races.

Finally, if the dollar continues to rise, it will pressure american stocks down in general, although other factors may be countervailing.

Otherwise, there are certainly some inviting tech stories. But for now the macro picture outweighs in my mind any stock-picking enthusiasms, all of which will get funnelled into short-term trades or the trash.

This has been a poorly written report from a mind mostly elsewhere.

January 1st, 2010

Film: The White Ribbon
Crisis of the Old Order

Magnificent. Must see. Glorious black and white. Gloriously and utterly un-American. One recalls why, when we were young, people thought film was a serious art.

It’s a psychological whodunit, to begin. So it’s natural the reviews would focus on the puzzles. Even so …

Spoiler Alert. The rest of this is for people who’ve seen it already. Unless one cares not to preserve a fresh first viewing.

Even so, the lack of comment in the reviews on the treatment of social history is surprising. This is what struck my mind throughout, and seems upon further thought the Grund of the story, the spine of the script.

Confirmation here comes (after dozens of hints) rather late when the Baronness declares she is leaving the Estate, and indeed leaving Germany — and is taking her son, the family heir.

Thus dissolves the Baron’s household, the power atop the village social structure, and the employer of most of its people.

Why does the Baroness bail? Because she has fallen in love with a banker in Lombardy (ie Milan), who swept her off her feet with his energy and sophistication, and was good with the boy.

Thus the Gentry gives way to the Liberals — the industrialists and their bankers, the Capitalists, the Bourgeoisie beloved of Saint-Simon — atop the pile of struggling classes.

Each of the adult male characters speaks for a familiar estate/class of late feudal society. Only the Officer is missing. But his clamor can be heard at film’s end, as his day dawns in 1914.

The Doctor serves well as a representative of Modern Science:

– mistreating, after deeply exploiting, the pre-modern Midwife (his professional precursor in the Middle Age now vanishing). He despises her “stench” and finally wishes she were dead.

– abusing the trust and curiosity of his daughter because, as he explains to the Midwife, his passions are autonomous, ungovernable, beyond good and evil. Robert Oppenheimer comes to mind. Or How I Learned to Love the Bomb.

Whether the Doctor’s unexplained departure at story’s end marks him (and Modern Science) a monster or a black hero turns perhaps on whether one comes to feel he has adopted (acknowledged?) the Midwife’s retarded son or, prefiguring the Nazis, has euthanized him. That his own boys are named Adolph and Rudi (Hess?) puts a point on the question but doesn’t decide it.

And note, most broadly, that while the children of the Minister and the Doctor are in close congress, their fathers seem to exist in separate towns. Or ages. Like Christendom and its successor Modernity.

As for details, a dozen otherwise odd and/or disjointed events in the film find justification (beyond gratuitous thrill-making) and make simple sense when considered as social history or pathology.

E.g., the Minister’s suppression of his son’s sexuality. The boy’s face (on the poster above) says it all: One of these decades that kettle’s gonna blow.

His name is Martin. Dubbed, no doubt, by his earnest father in honor of Luther. But as quickly as that came to mind I thought of Martin Bormann. Portrait of the Sadist as a Young Man.

Also interesting, in this vein, is the crudely bon-vivant and violent Steward of the estate, occupying his position of petty power between the Baron and the Peasants. In southern Italy such pastoral players were the root of what blossomed, as Noble control faded, into the urban mafias.

And, indeed — the Steward has been cast (Josef Bierbichler) as a hulking dark and garrulous Italian type, utterly distinct in appearance and behavior from the reserved Saxons that populate most of the screen. In particular his joking with ladies about sex stands out. Are we are to guess he was hired from Uncle Eduardo’s estate in Lombardy? Perhaps to keep the increasingly restive Peasants in line?

The film compares, then, to Bertolucci’s 1900 (in essence, not style).

To The French Lieutenant’s Woman — though much more Fowles’ novel than the film.

And to Ivy Compton-Burnett, who across some 20 novels, all set in late Victorian mansions peopled by failing grownups and bitter, biting children, told an epic story of social decline and shifting class loyalties and behaviors.

Both Bergman and Dreyer of course also come to mind, for various reasons, re both style and concern to tell social history, even if one believes Fanny and Alexander were happy kids.

It seems, then, that A.O. Scott, in particular, missed quite a big boat here. He seems to have been mezmerized by the spectacular surface psychology — and thus left to complain that Haneke told a shallow story (oh so familiar in America) that blames the Nazis on “child abuse.”

On the contrary: The surmise of the narrator (the now-old Schoolmaster) that this story, even if less than perfectly true, may help explain what the kids went on to accomplish in their prime, working hard and playing hard, seems well supported: The dissolution of the Old Order, and the Blow in Sarajevo (the first war and its disastrous sequelae), gave the deviant Nazis an opening to power.

Thank goodness it couldn’t happen here, where a prosperous and populous Middle Class exercises sovereignty in a vibrant constitutional democratic — uh, hmmm …

Finally, no reviewer I’ve seen has suggested what, after two viewings, seems clear: the gentle, somewhat bumbling Schoolmaster, played by Christian Friedel, is intended to be understood as Jewish.

The kind features of his face, his distinctively dark hair, his distinctively broad education, all support this reading, but also:

– his bitchy chastisement by the Baronness about church music and the church calendar;

– the otherwise pointless evasion of his would-be father-in-law at the matrimonial negotiation, who remarks that the teacher’d be better off working in his father’s shop in town (where your kind belong); and

– at story’s end, the abrupt and monstrous dressing down he suffers from the Minister after suggesting that the latter’s children are sadistic criminals. Denounced as “repulsive” and threatened with prison, ordered to “get out” and never return, he timidly acquiesces.

Thus fails, too — when the Other challenges at a stroke both Bible and Blut — the structure of Assimilation.

That the Schoolmaster when young was a Jew well at home in Bismarck’s young nation-state casts new light on his opening sad hope of somehow explaining “what happened later” as an effect of the alienating contradictions of old Christendom and its dissolution under pressure of Modernity’s miracles and wonders.

“The world’s not going to collapse.”

Twice we hear this during the year the Schoolmaster is required to wait for his bride: a naive but golden girl from a nearby town, daughter of a straight-shooting German Arbeiter, the very best that society has to offer a man of the Schoolmaster’s station.

But then comes the news from Sarajevo, and the marriage — consummation of Assimiliation — doesn’t come off.

Instead the erstwhile groom goes to war, for the Kaiser. And afterward, he tells us, never returns to the baronial village, returning instead to his hometown, to take over his father’s tailor shop. Which leaves the tinkling of Kristallnacht in one’s ears as the story fades to black.

We first met the Schoolmaster with his arm around Karli, the retarded boy, framed in the schoolhouse door — as the gang of kids, somewhat distant, snidely look on and sneer. It’s difficult not to think here of the Third Reich’s select victims. The kids will go on to burn both books and teacher.


Click

January 1st, 2010

2009 in review

“A London taxi driver tied one end of a rope around a post and the other around his neck and drove away, launching his head from the car.
Sarah Palin published a book and Sylvia Plath’s son hanged himself in Alaska.
Scientists in San Diego made a robot head study itself in a mirror until it learned to smile.”

From the Yearly Review in Harper’s.