Archive for February, 2009

The Thinker

The view from the street

In the mood for some nostalgia but do not actually have the money to see your old haunts? This used to be a problem but in many cases, it is not true anymore. While not exactly new news, until recently I was not that aware of Google Earth Street Views. More specifically, I was not aware how much fun they could be.

Way back in the dark ages of 2005 I discovered Google Earth. Back then it was the latest and most impressive tool from the wizards at Google, allowing you to see amazing imagery of our planet. The user interface was so slick and it seemed to know the location of pretty much everything. Now nearly four years old, Google Earth, along with its companion web-based product Google Maps feel very institutionalized. I wonder how we ever got anywhere without it.

Since then, Google kept adding features to Google Earth. You can see the stars in Google Earth, as well as Mars, the Moon and, most recently, underwater features of our planet. In addition, many new layers allow you to see relevant sets of features on our planet. Street views are a new layer that you can toggle on and off within Google Earth. You may have to upgrade Google Earth to find it and enable it. If you do, you may find your appetite for nostalgia has increased dramatically.

Street views, as the name implies, shows you the view from the street, not the view from a satellite or highflying aircraft. Street views require a lot of photography. While you can submit your own photos and they might appear in Google Earth, street views are more systematic. Apparently, Google has deep enough pockets to send out cars to traverse the nations’ highways and byways. On top of the car is a camera which every ten feet or so takes a 360 degree picture of whatever it sees. While Google is a long way from having street views of every street in the United States, it is making steady progress.

My neighborhood in Northern Virginia has yet to be photographed, but neighborhoods inside the Capital Beltway, as well as much of suburban Maryland are already available. To see street views first you have to enable the layer, and then you have to zoom in close enough to see the icons that appear on the screen. If street views are available, you will see more icons as you zoom in. If you zoom in on a street, you can see icons representing pictures every ten feet or so, indicating the exact location where the picture was taken. They appear as a little globe on the street. Double-click on the icon of interest and the scene smoothly changes to a street view. Then simply use your mouse to change direction, zoom in or zoom out.

In many cases, the street views leave a lot to be desired. The cameras appear to be programmed to take more detailed pictures near major intersections. You will find rather low-resolution snapshots in many street views. The photos may be low resolution but they are available any time of the day or night for free on your PC.

Google has yet to provide street views of Endwell, New York, the town where I spent my formative years. While I wait for them to get around to this backwater part of New York State, there are plenty of other street views that I can enjoy. In 1972, my family moved from Endwell to Ormond Beach, Florida. One of my first major finds was a street view of our old house on Capri Drive. More than thirty-five years have passed since I lived on the street, and it is showing its age. Our old house does not look as well maintained today as it did when we lived there. Our garage is gone and is replaced by what looks like it may be a home office. There is also a rather ugly picket fence around the house. The chain link fence I remember was more inviting. Still, it is amazing that I can see it at all. From the air, you look at the roofs of houses. This limitation goes away with street views.

The old Winn Dixie where I wiled away many hours is gone too, but the building still stands. The imagery is not good enough to show what replaced it, but whatever class of retail inhabits the place today it looks like a step down. The imagery of Belair Plaza in Daytona Beach, site of the first Winn Dixie where I worked, is much better but if the store is still there, it is hidden behind the trees. Just up the street, the Red Lobster where my brother Mike spent late evenings up to his elbows doing dishes still seems to be doing business.

Google has also been down the street in Scotia, New York where I spent my earliest years. I had to go to the pictures I took in 2005 to find our old house with any accuracy, since my memory was so hazy. The years have not been kind to North Holmes Street. When we lived in our house, we had a painter next door. The house next door could use one now, along with carpenters to replace it siding. It looks like it should be condemned. Nonetheless, the current occupants of our house must be patriotic because an American flag flies on their porch.

Nostalgia is an obvious use for street views, but it is also a great traveling tool. If you need to stay at a hotel in a city, you cannot only find it, but you can look around and see what the block looks like. In many cases, you can make out neighboring businesses. You can also create virtual vacations. Want to visit Paris? There are thousands of street views that you can enjoy, most with excellent definition. (People’s faces seem to be fuzzed out; I assume this is some sort of privacy requirement by the government of France.) I found a street view of our hotel in Paris with little effort and could even traverse its side street and read the window of the Pizza Hut where we ate.

Street views thus serve a number of purposes. To me they help cement in my mind just how amazingly big and complex our planet actually is. In the years ahead, I look forward to spending many hours traversing streets both known and unknown.

The Thinker

Where did all my money go?

Those of you who dared to read your brokerage statements probably have the same question that I did. Where the heck did all my money go? Some of my mutual funds are worth half what they were two years ago. Given the current dropping stock market, I am likely to see further losses in many of my funds.

If I had put my money into AIG stock then yes, I would expect to be able to get just pennies on the dollar. However, I own mutual funds. The whole point of owning mutual funds is to spread out the risk. Some stocks in the portfolio are bound to suffer but it should not matter because other funds will gain. It should all balance out somehow.

The short answer is that the financial industry came down with a bad case of the flu. Pretty much all of them are in the hospital and are being pumped with fluids from the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board in the hopes that they will recover. Then they can resume that voodoo that Wall Street used to do so well: showing regular returns for investors.

This begs the question: how did they all come down with the flu and the same time? Here too we sort of know the answers. As best this non-economist can figure out there were two root causes. First, the Federal Reserve Board under Alan Greenspan had a low inflation policy, even at the cost of keeping credit artificially cheap for unusual lengths of time. This had the effect of encouraging borrowing and made it possible for many of us to live far beyond our means. This helped facilitate the second root cause: ever more complex financial securities tied to cheap credit provided to risky borrowers. They became popular because they required no government review. They had the effect of hiding the risk of investing in these securities while giving the cash-rich places to invest money that would otherwise go under a mattress or earn next to nothing in a bank account. They looked reasonably safe because they were packaged like a mutual fund and thus presumed less risky.

Like someone whose diet consists of nothing but nachos and cheese dip, there is eventually a day of reckoning. One day you find your bowels obstructed, your blood pressure high and your cholesterol levels are through the roof. The world now has all this and more. We gorged ourselves mindlessly on bad debt. Our coaches (Congress, President Bush and the Federal Reserve) encouraged us to consume even more nachos and cheese dip. Now we weigh five hundred pounds and can hardly move from side to side in our hospital bed. In fact, the orderlies are having a hard time moving us to change our bedpans.

It is technically possible for a five hundred pound man to get back to a slim one hundred fifty pounds with a diet lasting many years, but the odds are heavily against the patient. Once you are used to a diet of nachos and cheese dip, it is hard to eat salads. You might think though that those who are providing us the food might be at least providing us with healthy food. As best I can tell, when it comes to the financial industry, with some caveats, the answer is you are allowed to serve as much junk food as you want.

I looked up what it took to establish a bank in Virginia, the state where I live. You definitely need a lot of starting capital. You also need five directors who set the bank’s policy. In addition, you need to hire a CEO. Virginia does not specify criteria for such a manager, although it suggests:

a suitable background and adequate training, a strong, well documented record of accomplishment in banking at a comparable level, a capacity for leadership, familiarity with the current banking environment, analytical ability, and a realistic outlook.

State chartered banks in Virginia also are required to undergo a “supervisory examination” no less than every three years. However, the state does not actually audit the bank. In fact, it goes out of its way to calm potential fears of the bank owners:

Although in some instances fraud has been discovered during the course of a supervisory examination, detecting dishonesty is not a primary purpose of an examination. An examination is concerned with a bank’s financial condition, its compliance with the various laws and regulations and the soundness of its operating policies; it cannot be relied on to detect fraud and embezzlement.

Presumably, before a bank charter is approved, Virginia will at least give it a sniff test to see if it smells, but it is clear that in Virginia’s case bank supervision is mostly superficial. Moreover, there are no requirements that I can find that the bank’s managers must have actual banking education. (I was hoping for something more than “I know how to use Quickbooks”.)  On the federal level, most banks choose to be FDIC insured. Presumably, this brings some federal scrutiny, but clearly not enough to keep many of these institutions solvent. Even if the criteria are clear, enforcement can be problematical. Moreover, as the Washington Post reported recently, banks can and do “shop around” for friendlier bank regulators. It suggested that the federal Office of Thrift Supervision is one of the more lax federal banking regulators.

If my limited research is correct, banks can be managed and run by people who aren’t necessarily even qualified bankers. Even if they have experience in banking, it is not clear that they need a level of certification to be a banker. I would think the criteria for any banker would include being an accredited Certified Public Accountant. Presumably, a banker needs to know more than a CPA and should have a broad understanding of financial risk, credit worthiness, assets to debt ratios and the like. Maybe they do but apparently, most were asleep during the lectures in MBA School, as they gorged their balance sheets with dubious toxic assets, which were never accurately valued. Given that so many banks are teetering on the edge of insolvency, it is reasonable to think the problem exists both nationwide and worldwide.

Banking regulation may be scattershot but at least it exists. On Wall Street, apparently all sorts of new and creative financial instruments can be created with no government oversight. The Securities and Exchange Commission has many powers, but Congress limits its powers (and budget). Indeed, until recently we wanted to free Wall Street from the tedium of government oversight. By doing so, it was believed that they would be free to whip up the magic of the free market. I understand that if you do not manage a herd of cattle they tend to overgraze or could come down with ailments like Mad Cow Disease. The same appears to be true on Wall Street. All things being equal, Wall Street will look for ways to line their own pockets first and their shareholders’ second. This appears to be exactly what happened.

Where did all my money (and yours) go? Much of it went to buy stocks and funds at prices that were way too high because they were not accurately and independently valued. Much of it also went into the pockets of swindlers on Wall Street who used the money to buy estates in the Hamptons, private jets, and luxury yachts. The federal government largely looked the other way. We investors largely looked the other way too, assuming that we were “safe” if we spread our risk by doing things like investing in mutual funds. However, primarily it was those we entrusted with managing our money that deliberately looked the other way. They were anxious for a big bonus for making quick profits rather than to looking out for the long-term needs of investors. Take my financial adviser. He is a bright guy. He knows how to find a good bet on a mutual fund. Nevertheless, he like most of them was clueless about the size and scope of our current financial disaster. He should not have been.

Supposedly, animals know when an earthquake is coming and move to safer ground. Our financial industry needs to be like this. Our bankers are fiduciaries of a public trust: our money. They should all be certified to the highest standards, maintain current credentials and demonstrate their financial acumen by showing that their funds are invested prudently. They should take an oath to such effect, go to prison if they do otherwise as well as have their personal wealth returned to their customers in the event they fail.

Similar criteria are needed for fund managers. Before creating any fund, they need to demonstrate to the government that the fund accurately states the risk of ownership. Rating firms similarly need to be impartial; in fact, they should be nationalized. Our money is too important to leave its valuation entirely in the hands of the free market.

In short, these investments belong to those who own them. Fund managers are fiduciaries with a solemn obligation to act prudently in the best interest of the owners. Funds are not funny money; they represent real dollars and reasonable expectations of future income. Since they deserve a high level of scrutiny and oversight, these fund managers need sterling credentials, certifications and regular oversight too. As for new financial instruments, they should get an impartial government examination before they are allowed on the market.

These are the sorts of long-term steps we need to take to ensure we are never caught with our financial pants down again. Anything less means that we will see similar debacles like this again.

The Thinker

iMac Journeys, Part Three

I promised when I got my iMac last year that I would give you periodic updates on my experiences, pro and con. Okay, I have been a bit tardy, having last written about my iMac last July. My iMac is now a routine part of my life and frankly, I give it less thought that I ever gave my Windows-based PCs. That is for the better. I now spend hardly any time fussing over my computer and a lot more time being productive with it.

I am finding that the myriad cool features that come with my iMac matter a lot less than its ability to behave consistently and reliably. I want it to work when I turn it on and go off promptly when I turn it off. I want it to be rather simple to use and wholly consistent when I have it on. Yeah, it is nice that it has a built in camera and microphone, but being introverted I hardly ever use these features. It is also nice that it takes up a lot less real estate on my desktop than my Windows PC. It is so quiet that most of the time I have to listen hard to know it is working at all. (The old PC always let me know it was alive by the continual whirr of its hard drives.) I like its wider screen and how everything looks so crisp and shiny on its monitor.

I also like how fast the system boots up and shuts itself down. My Dell desktop PC at work is patched most nights to address the latest security vulnerabilities. I generally don’t have to reboot it often, as I just log off and on. However, when I do have to reboot or cold start it, it takes many minutes as Windows XP applies patch after patch after patch. I have no idea how much money our agency spends pushing out these updates and patches to the thousands of PCs across our agency, but it must be a huge sum of money. In contrast, it takes about thirty seconds from when I turn on my iMac until I get a log in prompt. Shutting it down is faster. Leaving it in sleep mode is also an option. Applications generally run spiffily too, typically loading within ten seconds. Only a few times in the seven months I have owned an iMac have I had to Force Quit an application. (A Force Quit means the application was probably poorly written, and is not a reflection on the Mac OS/X operating system itself.) It froze up on me just once.

Like Windows, my iMac wants to be upgraded periodically, but it rarely pesters me more than every few weeks. When the software update icon jumps up and down on my Dock, it is not so often that I find it annoying. I have changed it to check for software updates monthly, so it will be even less bothersome.

What am I not doing? I am not wasting hours worrying about things like is my Norton Antivirus subscription up to date, or is my firewall sufficiently advanced, or has my machine been hacked or whether my hard disk needs to be optimized. I have yet to need to call Apple’s technical support line. I am not sure I will develop the same skills for troubleshooting my iMac as I painfully learned over the years using Windows. It’s probably a good thing that I don’t need to.

My experience suggests that the primary value of an iMac is its simpler environment, which is reliable and consistent. I expect it to be smart enough to heal itself. I assume, but do not know, that the Mac OS/X operating system is optimizing the hard disk in the background. I assume that if it needs more virtual memory it creates it automatically. I assume that if I have some vital data that it is being properly backed up somewhere. (To do this you first need to connect it with an external disk drive and then enable Time Machine.) I assume that it is secure and recently verified that my documents cannot be seen by other users on my machine.

There are some quirks. On my PC I pull out flash drives all the time without worrying about using the Windows approved method in the system tray. Do the same thing on my iMac and it gets very concerned, popping up a worrisome system notice. Just as at some level Windows is just MS-DOS with a graphical user interface, an iMac at some level is just a very fancy user interface for the Unix operating system. In the Unix world, you “mount” drives and “eject” them when you are done with them. A flash drive should not be treated like an external drive but it is. Perhaps the next version of OS/X will chill when it encounters a flash drive.

Nor is Apple immune to trying to get you to open up your wallet. It is very pushy with its iTunes software, just as Microsoft is with its MediaPlayer. Fortunately, my needs are simple. I have no desire to keep a large MP3 library. I have learned to avoid iTunes. If I want to hear an MP3 file on my MP3 player, I find it on the Internet and in Firefox right mouse click on the link, choose “Save Target as…” and point it to my MP3 player. I have no inclination to rush out and buy an iPod just so I can have the full integration with iTunes. At least I will have no inclination until my MP3 player dies and then I will consider it.

There is little cause for concern about software availability for the Mac anymore. So far, I have had little difficulty finding Mac versions of Windows software. My needs though are modest. Quicken is available for the Mac, and both TurboTax and TaxCut are as well. I just finished filing my taxes with TaxCut and it was frankly a superior experience to doing it on Windows. Of course, if you are a big gamer you may not find this to be true. If you really want, you can run Boot Camp and have Windows on your iMac. I am not sure why you would want to do that since you then have to deal with all the hassles of Windows on your iMac. It is better to do a clean divorce and get liberated.

The reality is that for me at least there is no longer any compelling reason not to buy an iMac. Microsoft has even written a version of its Remote Desktop Connection for the Mac. If necessary, I can access my desktop computer at work from home on my iMac, although it is a strange experience to see my iMac with a Windows Start button down in the bottom left corner.

One thing you can do to ease your adjustment from Windows to the iMac is remap the Control and Command keys. You can do this under System Preferences, Keyboard and Mouse. Just swap it so that the Control key works like the Command key and the Command key works like the Mac Control key. This means you do not have to relearn how to copy and paste between Windows and the Mac. Since you do this so frequently, you can save yourself the hassle of unlearning something that for many of us is hardwired into us.

The iMac is not computing nirvana, but it is where the personal computer should be had it evolved intelligently. That should be a compelling reason for anyone to consider ditching their Windows-based PC. My daughter is starting to agree, and is now saving for her own Macbook. She too has developed the expectation she should be able to just use her computer, rather than having to continually fuss over it. I suspect that when she too joins the Mac collective she will wonder why she waited so long.

The Thinker

Review: Indian Summer

Need a passage to India but cannot afford the ticket? Try spending $18.00 for the paperback version of Indian Summer (2007), which chronicles the ignoble end of the British Empire in India. Historian Alex von Tunzelmann (a she, by the way), in her very first book, puts together an often-fascinating portrait of the lives of the people that shaped India and Pakistan and the British overlords who saw it through its violent transition from colony to independent nation.

Through her voluminous research, von Tunzelmann takes us into the intimate life of Mohandas Gandhi, the famous pacifist whose nonviolent fasts could move empires. Gandhi though turns out to be something of an ancillary character. He is explored in depth, but von Tunzelmann turns most of her attention on the handsome Louis Mountbatten and his lovely and amazing wife Edwina Mountbatten. In his time, Louis Mountbatten was known as “Dickie”. Today he is best known as the paternal grandfather of Prince Charles, and the father of Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip. Dickie and Edwina lived oversized lives, which for a few years took them to India, with Dickie as its last viceroy and its first governor-general. Dickie’s unenviable job was to withdraw British forces from India, which had been bled dry from the Second World War, and which could simply no longer afford its empire. He had to do this while peacefully creating two new countries and without igniting a war between the new countries of India and Pakistan. Principally he had to arbitrate between two ardent nationalists, Jawahalar Nehru, who was to become India’s first prime minister and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who would have the same honor leading the new country of Pakistan.

To say Dickie found his job challenging would be an understatement. Imagine trying to come to find consensus between polarizing figures like Grover Norquist and Michael Moore. Nehru and Jinnah of course were but one of many characters influencing the birth of these new nations. The process was gloriously messy and certain to leave a bad taste in any viceroy’s mouth. Dickie’s career had been more mediocre than exceptional, but his oversized ego and noble blood led him to think he had the gift of succeeding in anything he did.

Dickie did have certain powerful assets, principally his charming wife Edwina, who could become friends with virtually anyone and if the gentleman was sufficiently interesting, lovers as well. Dickie married Edwina in part for her fortune, but they were not married too long before they realized they were temperamentally unsuited for each other. Dickie was devoted and simple minded. Edwina was sociable, brilliant, full of enormous energy and polyamorous to boot. She found little compunction to live her life by established rules. Her enormous wealth ensured she would not have to do so anyhow. Nor after a while did Dickie seem to mind. He found that to love Edwina he had to give her space to be who she was. This meant that through most of their marriage, they lived chaste lives, sometimes together but often apart, while Edwina frequently played the field. Dickie seemed to be born without the jealousy gene and appeared grateful for any time they could have together when they did not fight, which was often.

Anyone suspecting Edwina of being a trollop would be mistaken. She was quite discriminatory with who she slept with and with the right man she could be an extraordinary partner and lover. She preferred the exotic lover to the ordinary kind, which partially explains why shortly after meeting Nehru their relationship blossomed from good friend to lover. Through their extraordinary correspondence, much of it preserved and parsed over by von Tunzelmann, we learn that Edwina and Nehru’s both saw each other as the central love of their lives. They were never happier than when they were together, although those times were often fleeting.

The book thus is part soap opera and part history but mostly a page-turner. If you had to pick one character for whom this book is really about, it is Edwina Mountbatten. It is hard to finish the book and not see Edwina as one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century. She was fully liberated far before it was acceptable. She had boundless energy and boundless compassion, most of it for the poorest and most wretched among us. Moreover, she was absolutely fearless. Von Tunzelmann walks us through numerous occasions, particularly during the violent partition that created India and Pakistan, when Edwina daily put her own life in danger trying to sort through the unfolding human tragedy of nearly unfathomable proportions. Millions died because of wars associated with the partition. Edwina could often be found in refugee camps organizing aid, tending to the wounded, ministering the spiritually bereft, and even sorting through the piles of bodies found on the sides of the road. While some would be shocked by her libidinous love life, unquestionably she was a woman of great love and character. Women of any age looking for a woman to admire would have a hard time finding a better example than Edwina Mountbatten. She lived an authentic and fully engaged life on her own terms. Despite her enormous wealth, she connected more with the common person than Fidel Castro did with the humble Cuban. I hope that someday Hollywood (or Bollywood) will do her story justice on the screen.

Yes, this book is indeed a passage to India, and you are along for the ride a midst often fascinating and controversial characters. You can be thousands of miles away and still feel the heat of New Delhi on a one hundred seventeen degree summer day. You also learn in great detail about the many factions and political tensions in India and Pakistan, and the horrible political violence that occurred in Kashmir and elsewhere. It is sad to see so many of these tensions still abound today, as witnessed most recently in the Mumbai terrorist attacks that murdered hundreds of innocents.

To make sense of the present, it helps to understand the past. Von Tunzelmann performs an admirable service by explaining the genesis of Indian and Pakistan quagmire, as well as the end of the British Empire, in a fascinating and intimate way. Since she is young, I hope she can give us many more histories like this in the years ahead. I will likely be first in line to purchase them.

The Thinker

Review: Battlestar Galactica (Season One)

The original TV series Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980) was so bad that even someone desperately looking for science fiction on TV like myself could not watch it. It was dreadful! I may have made it through one episode, but one was enough. It was a little more than a painfully cheap Star Wars rip off. I found R2-D2 in Star Wars annoying, but it was positively adorable next to Muffet II, the annoying robotic dog in the original BSG. Lorne Greene played Commander Adama and he made William Shatner look good. The show was also too 70s. From Richard Hatch’s blow dried hair to its token African American Herb Jefferson, Jr., the show leeched the worst of what had come before it. Still, Americans were so desperate for science fiction on television that it somehow managed to hang on for three years before it was mercifully put out of its misery.

In 2003, the SciFi Channel agreed to air an expensive “reimagining” of the show by producer and writer Richard D. Moore. To the extent that I was aware of it, I tuned it out. The bad vibes emitted from the original Battlestar Galactica convinced me the show had to have a jinx on it. I would likely still be unaware that I was wrong had various family members and friends not prodded me to watch this incarnation. A few months back I gave in and bought the first season on DVD. My wife and I have slowly been making our way through it, sometimes resting a few weeks before trying another episode.

Our rests between episodes is to some extent understandable because the BSG universe is an ultra dreary place. In case you are not familiar with the show, Galactica is the warship for a rag tag fleet of interstellar spaceships containing the last remnants of the human race. Unlike the Jews, who had Yahweh in the desert to send them manna from heaven, these humans get nothing but silence from the Gods of Kobol that many of them worship. (Why am I thinking it’s the Gods of COBOL? Do they really worship Grace Hopper?) Rest assured they get nothing but grief from the Cylons, a model of robots that humans created to serve them that got all uppity. The Cylons have evolved to the point that they are virtually indistinguishable from humans. One thing is abundantly clear: they want to exterminate the human race right down to our last strand of human DNA. Whenever they find any humans, they send out a vast horde of Cylon raiders to destroy them. Cylons are like roaches in that they seem to be everywhere but often hidden yet never invited in. That they are so hard to tell apart from human beings makes the humans very paranoid, unable to tell friend from foe.

The series starts with a terrific pilot, which is a full-blown movie in its own right. No question about it, it is slick! It is hard to think of it as a pilot because from the first frame it feels like the actors have been playing their parts for years. You can feel the close quarters and almost the smell their perspiration. Lorne Greene died in 1987, so he was unable to reprise his role as Commander Adama, which is just as well. In this incarnation, you get the craggy faced and raspy voice actor Edward James Olmos instead. Thankfully, Olmos is a 1000% better actor than Greene. I won’t mention all the ancillary characters as it is better to explore them for yourself. Most of the names have been retained from the original series but in some cases, some surprising changes were made.

Starbuck for example had a sex change operation and is played with impertinent eloquence by Katee Sackhoff. Boomer, instead of being African American is female and Oriental as well as potentially a Cylon, although she is not certain of it. Captain Apollo (Lee) got a much-needed haircut but still seems a bit too handsome, yet is convincingly played by Jamie Bamber. The best part: the only annoying robots are the Cylons, and most of the Cylons, while being villainous, are at least interestingly evil characters.

The principle Cylon in residence is the foxy and evil Six (Tricia Helfer), who appears only to ship physician research scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis). She exists to taunt him, to tease his high-strung libido and to make him loathe himself by doing things to his species he should not do. They are quite a toxic pair; clearly, she is the dominant, and he is pussy whipped. If you have to loathe a character, Dr. Baltar is easy to loathe, since he is so easily manipulated by Six and not nearly as much fun as Dr. Smith was in Lost in Space. In fact, I was hoping the writers would do us a favor and kill him off. No such luck.

Richard Moore likes to tease his audience as mercilessly as Cylons do humans. If you like intrigue, you will love this incarnation of Battlestar Galactica, because it piles on the layers of mystery so deep it frequently feels suffocating. How is a lowly TV viewer supposed to parse through all the subterfuge? Clearly, those Cylons are way smarter than us humans, so maybe we deserve extinction. Somehow, a diminished set of humans seems to hang on from episode to episode against overwhelming odds thanks to an overextended set of pilots and the smart, fearless leadership of Commander Adama.

While the acting, special effects and writing are typically first rate, there are some oddities about this reimagining. Perhaps because the SciFi Channel wanted to pinch a few extra pennies, it has a very early 21st century feel to it. Obviously, it is cheaper to shoot exterior shots if you can go with today’s architecture, so we get cities on planets like Caprica that look suspiciously like Vancouver. Clothing too looks present day. Civilians like President Laura Roslin prefer to dress like Hillary Clinton. Some aspects are even more antiquated. Galactica is showing its age. Much information spits out of printers. No communicators for this crew. POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) will do just fine. Anyhow, it’s apparently much more secure to be low tech when dealing with those ultra shrewd Cylons.

Nor is it clear how the citizens of this ragtag fleet get their supplies. There seem to be no lack of consumables like printer paper, booze and cigarettes. They sure aren’t making pit stops on Earth, which is lost and half mythical anyhow, and their home world of Caprica is full of Cylon-induced radiation that destroyed all human life (well, almost all).

Battlestar Galactica is space opera, of course, so it is best not to trouble yourself with these details. Have a beer yourself and enjoy the show (if you can use that word with a show that is such an unrelenting downer) for what it is. After a terrific start, the show does sag a bit in the middle of the season. A couple episodes in the first season, like “Tigh Me Up, Tigh Me Down” are frankly below subprime. Naturally, like all shows hoping to be renewed, it ends on one of these impossible cliffhangers. This being BSG though it will have more dimensions, layers, shock and perturbations than a Matrix movie.

Anyhow, I’m hooked, so I better go buy Season Two. If you haven’t seen the series, based on its first season it may be depressing stuff, but it is really well done depressing stuff, so go buy it and enjoy.

The Thinker

Putting the “bye” in bipartisan

It is clear that President Obama did not spend many years in the U.S. Senate. As an Illinois state senator, he was used to crossing the aisle in Springfield. When he came to Washington, he made a habit of crossing the aisle in the U.S. Senate too. He rarely crossed the aisle to compromise his own principles, but to try to find consensus so that the notoriously slow U.S. Senate would actually move on some issues. His goals were laudable although the number of times this approach actually worked was rather small. Few issues were sufficiently nonpartisan that significant groups of senators could be persuaded to put country or simple pragmatism ahead of party.

As president, Obama wanted to do the same thing. His thinking is that our economic crisis was grave and as large a national challenge as September 11th was for President Bush. After September 11th, Americans and Congress largely rallied behind President Bush. Democrats largely decided they would accede to him on foreign policy matters, but even on many domestic policy matters, such as large tax cuts, they acquiesced. Such accommodations though were rarely bipartisan. They amounted to capitulation. Democrats were rarely successful in convincing Republicans or President Bush to accommodate their ideas.

To show Republicans he was serious, Obama nominated three Republicans as members of his cabinet. He retained Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, gave the job of Secretary of Transportation to Ray LaHood (formally a representative from Illinois) and nominated as Secretary of Commerce New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, before he abruptly withdrew last week. He was trying to show Republicans that he was serious about running a bipartisan government. He then invited Republicans to tell him their ideas for this proposed economic stimulus bill. The final bill to be signed Tuesday incorporates many ideas pushed by Republicans including large tax cuts.

What did he get for all this effort? In the House of Representatives, every single Republican voted against the House bill as well as the final bill. On the Senate side, three moderate Republican senators crossed the aisle, the bare minimum needed to keep the bill from being filibustered into defeat. Two were moderate senators from Maine who have to win reelection in a state that like most of New England is trending blue. Pennsylvania Senator Arlan Specter, also from a predominantly blue state, was the only other Republican senator to break party ranks. He did so with some trepidation. This vote may well cost him in 2010 when he runs for reelection. His concern is not so much the general election as with the Republican primary. Americans in general support President Obama’s stimulus bill, but the Republican rank and file are up in arms.

Republican opposition is thus partially rooted in opposition from the party faithful. Most Republican politicians are also ideologically opposed to the bill. Considering the size of the tax cuts in the bill and the fact that for the last eight years Republicans have embraced deficit spending, you would think they would be in a more accommodating mind. However, this calculus assumes that Republicans want the economic recovery plan to succeed. Rush Limbaugh articulated their true feelings rather well when he recently said he hopes that Obama fails.

Of course they do! Obama failed to understand that for Republicans, party triumphs over country. This is because they cannot conceive of the United States as a “good” country unless it reflects their governance because they know what is right and Democrats do not. It is that simple. If Obama’s plan succeeds, and frankly, the odds are against Obama, it will mean larger Democratic majorities, more years of political estrangement and no clear way to get back power. If it does not succeed, or is perceived to have been ineffective, by voting No they can say “We told you so”, which sets them up for possible electoral gains in 2010 or 2012. In short, by voting No, there were few political downsides and plenty of potential upsides. It reinvigorated the party faithful, who were feeling dispirited and morose over their drubbing in the last two elections. It showed that they stood on principle, something they were not so great at during the last eight years. Standing on principle, they hope, positions their party to be seen in a new light. Since they are out of power anyhow, the way back into power is to be well positioned when the other party screws up. With a government as large and as unwieldy as ours it is not hard to screw up.

As I mentioned, Obama’s economic recovery plan is unlikely to yield the hoped for results. Like all legislation out of the Congress, it is ultimately a work of political accommodation. In this case, by accepting so many Republican ideas, the plan became watered down and is likely to be far less effective because it is less focused and coherent. Tax cuts have failed to stimulate the economy in the past but here they are yet again. While they won’t work this time either they do give Republicans something to take back to voters, while giving them cover because so few of them actually voted for the bill. It is unlikely that the nearly $800 billion bill, in spite of its huge size, will be enough to really jumpstart the economy. Most of the money will not be spent in 2009, and as a percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product, the amount of money is rather tiny. It is likely better than doing nothing, as it provides vital funds to extend unemployment benefits, food stamps and health benefits to millions of Americans who desperately need them, but it is more of a Band-Aid than a solution.

The reality is that bipartisanship is dead in Congress and is likely to remain so. Obama may want to bring about bipartisanship, but it is only possible if the parties want to be bipartisan. While the American people in general embrace the idyllic notion of bipartisanship, there is no sign that that our political parties want to govern in a bipartisan way.

Obama is a smart man but I am still surprised he did not see this coming. Bipartisanship has great promise, but the soil is not now right for it to grow. It is unclear if the soil will ever be sufficiently fertilized. Thus far, it has had no upside for him except possibly keeping his approval ratings sky high. As a means of effecting helpful policy changes, it is counterproductive. In the future, it is likely that President Obama will give lip service to bipartisanship and work with Democrats and a handful of moderate Republican senators to get the changes he needs. Clearly, Republicans are only interested in promoting their own political resurgence and are hostile toward any actions that might help Obama succeed in these perilous economic times.

The Thinker

Scary times

On New Year’s Day, I wrote this post wherein I assessed my family’s financial situation. Like many of you, I determined that my family’s financial life had been sharply devalued. I had done the things that prudent Americans do to have the expectation of having a decent retirement only to find out that someone had pulled the financial rug from underneath us. I am likely doing better than most, but I am still wondering where half of the value of my daughter’s college fund went, particularly since I am now paying her tuition bills and other expenses.

We now have a new Administration and Congress. Congress is about to approve a stimulus bill with a price tag of $790 billion. President Obama claims it will add or save four million jobs. In addition, our new Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is getting ready to spend the second half of the bailout that Congress hurriedly passed shortly before the last election. Meanwhile the Federal Reserve is looking for new weapons to deal with the financial mess. It no longer has the interest rate lever, as the bank discount rate is effectively zero.

One option the Fed has is to print money. They do not have to bother cranking up the printing presses. The U.S. dollar is a fiat currency, which means its wealth is not based on anything tangible, like gold. The Fed can simply declare that more dollars exist. Whoosh! They can use the money to do things like buy troubled bank assets. The money spent and obligated to try to solve our financial crisis is currently between two and three trillion dollars, depending on which news reports you believe. Bear in mind that Bush left office with about a ten trillion dollar federal debt. We are about to bump that up by another third in just a few short months.

All this money is to fix a problem that no amount of money may be able to fix. Frankly, even our best financial wizards do not really know what it will take to fix this crisis or the magnitude of its cost. There is the hope that if toxic assets can be taken off the books of financial institutions at least they will be able to value their assets with some accuracy again. If that happens then they will feel free to lend credit. Maybe. Whether these steps would actually cause the economy to rebound is unknown too.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt did not know whether his various initiatives would turn things around either. Neither does President Obama. The only imperative then and today is that government must so something. It cannot just stand back while millions join the unemployment roles. President Roosevelt created an alphabet soup of agencies that put people to work on worthwhile endeavors like the improving our national parks. Similarly, President Obama wants to put Americans to work rebuilding our society to fit the 21st century. Only we really do not know what the 21st century economy will look like. Perhaps we will know when we are done.

There are some unanswered questions. If the Federal Reserve can create money by fiat, doesn’t all this new money just devalue the dollars we already have? Could this be good? After all, if deflation is a problem, devaluing our money promotes inflation. We seem comfortable with inflation, providing it is in a manageable range. However, we are uncomfortable with deflation because it is toxic to growth. On the other hand, could all this new money ultimately scare off investors, who will be paid back in dollars that are worth less? Similarly, what happens if the U.S. Treasury puts new treasury bills on the market but not enough creditors snap them up? How do we turn things around then?

No one seems anxious to spend too much time thinking about these scenarios, of course. If realized they could become catastrophic, leading to mass unemployment and hyperinflation that would make the late 1970s seem nostalgic. It could lead the unraveling of society as we know it.

One hopeful sign is the value of the dollar. Logically it should not be rising against other currencies when our economy is quickly contracting. Yet it is. This is true in part because this economic downturn is hardly just a United States phenomenon. It is global. It may seem counterintuitive to give your money to the U.S. Treasury at times like these. Yet, in a world rife with instability, our government is perceived as the most stable in the world. If you think about it, this is understandable. We had one civil war but are unlikely to ever have another one. We have no neighboring countries interested in invading us. And as we witnessed on January 20th, we have a tradition of peaceful changes in power, even during times of great trial. In a very uncertain world, the survival of the United States government is a good bet. So if you have money under your mattress and it doesn’t feel safe there, why not loan it to the U.S. Treasury? Even at niggardly interest rates, it looks safer in the federal government’s care than in any other place. So it is likely that when the U.S. Treasury auctions off the next trillion dollars in securities, there will be buyers. Perhaps we can ride this thing out by acquiring massive new amounts of federal debt.

It is hard to know how much of this crisis was preventable and how much is just a result of moving from a 20th century economy to a 21st century one. It is clear though that much of it was preventable but government chose to either ignore the problem or actively exacerbate it. Americans emulated their government by living far beyond their means. For myself, I find myself less ideological and more pragmatic. I have no patience for any politician who cannot see past their ideology.

We need leaders capable of impartially evaluating the present and taking pragmatic steps to address our present problems. The good news is that we have a ruthlessly pragmatic president. The bad news is that the vast majority of the Republican Party, and a small minority of Democrats, remain slaves to ideology. There were just enough of these people to gum up this stimulus bill. This means that the stimulus bill is likely to be half a loaf, rather than a full one. Let us hope there is enough sustenance in this half a loaf to actually revive our economy.

The Thinker

More adventures in aging

Aging is an experience we only go through once, thank goodness. Perhaps that the ultimate effect of aging is death is not an entirely bad thing. At some point, the downsides of aging outweigh the benefits of being alive. As readers know, last December I received another unpleasant wakeup call that I too was aging. It resulted in subjecting myself to myriad medical tests and finding myself on Weight Watchers. Some of the more common aging signs I have experienced in my now fifty two years on this planet: loss of near term vision, age spots, odd aches and pain, joint pains, back aches, a diminished sex drive and an inability to hear very high frequencies. Now I can add one I did not expect to my list: I get colder easier.

It used to be that I was the most comfortable around seventy degrees. Now seventy degrees, even with a sweater on just feels cold. Why is this? Apparently, it isn’t due to a paucity of body fat, or I would not be on Weight Watchers. The only thing I can infer, since this was never a problem in my younger years, is that this is yet another symptom of aging.

I remember being amused when I visited my late grandmother and found that it was eighty degrees in her house and she was wearing a sweater. She was one of these petite women with neither much body fat, nor much in the way of muscles (but was always in a dress). I could rather see why she might want to wear a sweater. I found the time I spent in her home both enjoyable (in being able to see her) and oppressive (in that I wanted her to crank down the air conditioner, but I couldn’t work up the nerve to ask her).

My office is maintained at a uniform temperature of seventy degrees, which should feel comfortable. Most of the people on my floor seem perfectly comfortable. Me? I have a heater on. The moment I open my office door I rush to the heater by my window and crank it up. It could be that because I have an office with a view, it would be naturally colder in the mornings. Yet, if I leave the heater off, it feels just as cold to me at noon as it does at eight in the morning.

Often using the heater does not do the trick. So I keep a pullover sweater behind my door and put that on. It seems to work well for my upper extremities but not on my lower ones. Since I typically wear jeans to work, you would think that would keep my legs sufficiently warm, but it does not. My legs feel cold. Relief does not really arrive until the afternoon. Then the sun comes through my window. This heats up my office nicely. Sometime after two p.m. I can take off the sweater and turn off the radiator.

During the summer, you would think the situation would be reversed, but it gets worse. The uniform seventy degrees is maintained in the summer as well as the winter. However, my radiator vent will only blow out cool air in the summer. Since the sun is higher up in the sky, less sun shines through my windows, meaning my office is less likely to warm up in the afternoons. Therefore, I am more likely to wear my sweater in the office during the summer than in the winter.

At home, we keep the thermostat at seventy-two. I would like to notch it up a few degrees to maybe seventy-four, but my wife simply cannot tolerate it that warm. This often means I am putting on a sweater at home too. I am hoping since she is only three years younger than I am that she will eventually develop my condition so I can feel more comfortable around the house.

Yes, aging is full of discoveries that you can no longer take things for granted anymore. Exercise used to be optional. Now it is required. Eating healthy all the time used to be optional. Now it is required, or you may suffer devastating consequences to your health. I recently found something else that used to be optional: drinking water only when you get thirsty.

Since I am a largely indoor denizen, I tend to only sweat when I exercise or am outdoors in a temperate climate. If I need water, I always thought my body would tell me by sending the hitherto reliable thirst signal. Now I am learning that is not sufficient. If like me you are one of the Dilbert’s of the world, you need to start guzzling water. Keep a water bottle at your desk and plan to go through three or four bottles a day at work. You may think you are doing a disservice to your kidneys by running to the bathroom so often, but in actuality, you are doing a kindness to them. You are also being kind to your body in general. If you do not regularly replenish your body’s water, your body will assume that you need to retain water because your survival is at stake. Retaining water is not a good thing because it can raise your blood pressure. At worst, it can lead to heart disease and other conditions.

Because it is a complicated machine, your body should come with an owner’s manual. The body has its own needs. Some it will tell you what they are and sometimes it will leave you blissfully ignorant. That is the purpose of getting a physical: to discover those things that it is not telling you.

At least my body is quite clear about preferred temperatures. Seventy degrees is about four degrees too cold to be comfortable. As I write this, I just returned from exercise. For a while, I can coast in the glow of the extra heat that I put out during exercise. It will be an hour, perhaps less, before I will find myself reaching for my sweater.

The Thinker

Blogging at a more relaxed pace

While I love to blog, I am finding that it is increasingly hard to find the time to create posts as often as I would like. In a typical month, I put out twelve to fifteen posts, which means I post every other day on average. Since a typical blog post is one and a half to two and a half pages long, this represents a significant commitment of time and thought, particularly since I edit each post four times before publication.

I have many other duties and hobbies. I added another one to my plate recently: adjunct teaching. I haven’t taught a class since 2004. However, I started again this semester so I can plausibly claim I still have one foot in academia. Academia in my case may be a community college, but it is academia nonetheless. My motivations are a general interest in passing on knowledge to future generations, as well as to improve my chances of making teaching a second career. I am hoping to retire from federal employment in five years or so, but I already know my pension won’t pay all my bills. It is unlikely that my 401-K will make up the difference either. So I will need some sort of job, although it can pay significantly less than my current salary and perhaps be part time. Whatever it turns out to be, my goal is that it should be something I will enjoy more than my current job, which actually I like quite a lot, but comes with a number of rather heavy responsibilities. I am envisioning myself as a full time community college professor shortly after retirement. Whether it will work out this way remains to be seen, but I figure I have a better chance of realizing my vision if I keep a foot in academia.

As anyone who has taught a class knows, teaching takes time, typically three to four times the time you actually spend in class. The course I am teaching has been laid out rather well for me, but even so is requiring eight to twelve hours of work a week on top of my full time job. Something has to give, which means you will be seeing fewer posts here. My goal will be to post a well-written and thoughtful post every three to four days, which will translate into about eight to ten posts a month. That is still a lot and matches my pace when I started blogging in late 2002 and 2003.

My other hobbies and activities include selling my software services. I have stopped taking new clients to make time for teaching. Fortunately, perhaps due to the recession, my existing clients have not had much work for me either. I also host a number of other domains, which take time to manage. In addition, I am the author of two popular modifications to the popular phpBB forum software that I want to keep maintaining but am now struggling to find time to work on. In addition, I must fit regular exercise into my agenda, which I have been doing all along, and juggle other responsibilities as husband, father and general household manager. In short, I have a full and satisfying life that generally keeps me going without too much downtime seven days a week.

So expect two to three posts a week on average in the future. If pockets of free time become available to do more blogging, I will probably step up the pace.

The Thinker

Review: Downfall (2004)

I can think of few places that I would want to be less than in Adolph Hitler’s bunker during the last few weeks of the Third Reich. The Russians were approaching from the East, the Americans from the West, and the proud city of Berlin was quickly being reduced to rubble by invading forces. A few German armies outside the city still fought but were quickly being encircled. They were unable to assist Adolph Hitler in his final days. In April 1945, Hitler’s empire, which had at one time extended from the Russian Front to Northern Africa, was rapidly being reduced to a strip a thousand meters wide in downtown Berlin. Some Germans, including a boy on the edge of adolescence, rallied to defend the city. Many that did not were shot or hung as traitors. Artillery shells rained down on central Berlin. In the bunker beneath the city, the final remnants of the Third Reich catered to an increasingly dysfunctional Adolph Hitler, tried to reconcile the dichotomy between their devotion and their understanding that the Reich was ending, drank to excess, partied and fornicated.

At least that is the story presented by Traudi Junge in the movie Downfall. Junge was the personal secretary to Adolph Hitler, and lived with him in the bunker during those last days. She was one of a few to escape and lead something like a normal life afterwards. As played by Alexandra Marie Lara, Junge was a pretty, lithe and early twenty-something single woman dutifully devoted to the Fuehrer but blithely unaware just how evil her boss was. She also possessed an ability to remain largely unruffled by the chaos around her. These turned out to be useful survival skills in those final days. Somehow, despite the death outside and the dying and amputations inside the bunker she dutifully knew her place, always looking clean and fresh, and could faithfully take dictation or type when called asked.

The real Traudi Junge, who survived nearly to the 21st century, is interviewed at the start and conclusion of the film. This, and a brief scene near the start of the film capturing the night she was hired by Hitler, are virtually the only parts of this two and a half hour movie that do not occur in or around Hitler’s bunker. The film is disturbing for its high level of violence but like most fine great war movies feels uncannily accurate.

Hitler’s inner circle ranged from the fanatically devoted, to the pragmatic realists and to those who found escape in drinking or dancing. Hitler himself veers sharply between lucid and crazy. At times, he seems resigned to his defeat and at other times, he feels that he will somehow turn things around and resurrect the Third Reich. His mistress Eva Braun, on the other hand, is portrayed as something of morale officer. Knowing her end is imminent, she seems determined to dance, have fun and spread some cheer until the moment of death. You might say she fiddled while Berlin burned.

Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of Adolph Hitler is chilling, intimate, memorable and feels eerily accurate. Hitler is not always portrayed as mad. At times, you see something in him resembling a common man. Mostly though he is a man consumed by passion, his ego and his feelings of righteousness. Faults ultimately lie in his staff and his generals, but never in himself.

The most chilling of many portrayals in this movie is probably Corinna Harfouch’s, who has the dubious privilege of portraying Mrs. Goebbels, the Ann Coulter of the Nazi Era. Mrs. Goebbels knows only unquestioned duty, so of course she dutifully drugs then poisons her own children as the end nears. If her children have to die, she figures, it is best if their mother does the evil deed. Yet, she is one of many memorable characters in this movie. The subject matter may be hard to endure, but once you begin watching Downfall, it is hard to turn it off. It is riveting.

Downfall thus is one of those really good but awful movies, excellently directed and acted but certain to churn your stomach if not empty it altogether. The end of this war is portrayed in all its garish horror. It should be hard to feel any sympathy but you do at times for men, women and children foolishly devoted to this wretch of a man, as well as the dutiful and patriotic soldiers doing their best in an impossible situation.

The movie was shot in German and is subtitled.

3.4 on my four-point scale.


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