Archive for August, 2011

The Thinker

Review: The Godfather (1972)

Goodness, who hasn’t seen The Godfather? Well, um, me, until this weekend. How could I have possibly missed seeing one of the most famous movies of all time, a movie so famous that viewers on the Internet Movie Database rate it 9.2 out of 10 stars? In fact, it is tied with The Shawshank Redemption as its highest rated movie.

I missed it because I was inconveniently fifteen in 1972, and thus was not allowed to go to R rated movies. My parents would not have taken me, being devout Catholics and all. We did sneak read parts of the novel by Mario Puzo. I never tried to read it all the way through, but we dog-eared the pages with the sex scenes. In 1972, it was a very racy book.

I knew that the movie would be gross because it’s about the Mafia. Not being a fan of violent movies in general, once of legal age I felt little inclination to see it. But given its high rating by imdb.com fans, it seemed like there was no way to dislike it. So I looked forward to seeing the movie at last, knowing I was likely to be satisfied nearly forty years after its release.

Well, it’s definitely not a bad movie, and yeah it’s a pretty good movie but a movie that should be tied for first place as the viewer’s choice award for all time? No, definitely not in my judgment. Granted, I can see how in 1972 it would have been something of a sensation. It’s chock full of violence. In an era when violence was rarely portrayed accurately in a movie, The Godfather was an exception. Watching it in the 21st century, the violence seems a tad on the tame side, but that’s largely because we’ve grown inured to it. But director Francis Ford Coppola proved something of a genius in perfecting violent (principally murderous) scenes. They feel creepily authentic. Mix the violence with the creepy but plausible world of the New York Mafia in the 1940s and you have a movie that feels authentic in a really awful way, like you want it not to be true but you knew it is faithful to the times. Indeed it was, as I have read about the Mafia of the 1950s.

Seeing The Godfather nearly forty years after it was released feels like being in a time warp. With the exception of Marlon Brando, many of Hollywood’s big stars appear in The Godfather are so fresh faced. None is fresher than Diane Keaton, who plays the girlfriend and eventual wife of Michael (Al Pacino), the unexpected heir to the Corleone crime syndicate. Speaking of Pacino, I had to look at him carefully before I could believe it was him. He is so young, and so baby faced. Marlon Brando’s was the exception. His late fifties-early sixties look was likely largely a result of an excellent makeup artist, as he was 48 when the movie was released.

Brando of course won but would not accept an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of The Godfather, a.k.a. Don Vito Corleone. This puzzled me because while he did a good job with the part, it did not strike me as best actor caliber. For one thing, his raspy voice turns out to be grating, and grows more grating as the movie progresses. If anyone deserved a best actor award, it should have been Al Pacino, whose character Michael slowly morphs from a nice, humble war hero into the ruthless head of his father’s crime syndicate. It’s a transition that is excellently portrayed, and leaves us decent people aghast at this turn of events. With his brother Sonny (James Caan, also looking surreally young) one of many victims of rival syndicates, Michael’s life of crime seems to be necessary simply to sustain a vast family empire. What’s chilling is how he takes to it. The best and most heartbreaking scene in the movie is probably near the very end, where he lies to his wife Kay. He’s spun so tightly in his weird idea of machismo that he cannot even tell her about the woman he fell in love with and married while on the lam in Sicily. He will lie even when he promises her he will not lie. It’s all about fidelity or something.

What shows through for me forty years later are the smaller parts, mostly the amoral thugs of the Corleone syndicate, like Alex Rocco as Moe Green and Abe Vigoda as Tessio. Many of the best pieces of The Godfather puzzle are found at its edges, not its center. The movie is compelling in the same way a bad car wreck is compelling. It leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth that people like these can be such complete hypocrites and liars. Integrity has a strange meaning in the Corleone clan.

So, yes, forty years later The Godfather is still a compelling movie and I can see how in 1972 it would stand out against much more pedestrian fare. Besides, the novel was as ubiquitous as the Bible at the time. It’s sad that one of our allegedly best films renders so well people and time better forgotten.

3.3 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

 

 
The Thinker

Review: Juno (2007)

Juno is (nearly) everyone’s favorite pregnant teenager. Juno (played by Ellen Page) would be interesting at any age. She is weird but generally harmless, eclectic, smart, not a slave to fashion, pragmatic and able to talk to adults like she is their age. She is not smart enough not avoid some brainless moments, which of course led to her to have so-so unprotected intercourse with a fellow nerd boyfriend Paulie (Michael Cera). That took care of her virginity problem and satisfied her curiosity about sex, but what to do if, oops, you end up a little bit preggers?

For most girls her age she might be thrown out on the street, or living through her pregnancy at some church sponsored halfway house for wayward mothers. Juno though comes from if not a good family, then a decent family. Her father (J.K. Simmons) divorced and remarried, but his second wife Bren (Allison Janney) has her head on straight. When she spills the beans to Dad and stepmom they want to be supportive.

First decision: whether to abort the baby or carry it to term. Abortion in her state is easy to acquire, but a trip to the clinic leaves her with mixed feelings. Her friend shows her a penny saver press and points her to ads from infertile couples. Soon she is signing her baby away to a well moneyed couple in a McMansion, Vanessa and Mark. It turns out teenage pregnancy can be pretty straightforward if you are white. This makes it easy to find the right couple to pay all your expenses, provided you don’t mind feeling disenfranchised from your peers at high school when the pregnancy gets noticed. Paulie turns out to be a pretty decent guy but has no interest in being a father, just in running track.  Juno doesn’t want to be a mother either, but pragmatically suffers through a pregnancy.

In short, there is not a whole lot of suspense in Juno, other than her relationship with her child’s prospective adoptive father Mark (Jason Bateman) seems unusually close at times. Aside from a gap of twenty years of so, Mark and Juno seem very well matched. It turns out that Mark, a jingle writer, is not that in love with Vanessa and Juno’s arrival had him considering exiting the marriage. Given Vanessa’s obsession with all things babies perhaps his need to regress twenty years and live a single guy’s life in a loft apartment is understandable.

It turns out that the only character that is really interesting in the movie Juno is Juno herself, but this may be because Ellen Page makes the character so memorable that it is hard to see or appreciate the other characters. There could probably be a whole series of movies about Juno. This one, Juno does Pregnancy could be followed by Juno does College, Juno gets Married, Juno does Wall Street and eventually Juno moves into an Active Adult Retirement Community. She’s that interesting. And I’d probably take the time to go see all of them. But this Oscar-winning movie (for Best Screenplay by Diablo Cody) has little to recommend it otherwise. The plot itself has so little meat you might want to search for tastier fare. However, you won’t feel cheated by the movie’s lack of depth, just revel in enjoying a quirky and finally drawn character.

3.1 on my four-point scale.

Rating: ★★★☆ 

 
The Thinker

Republicans and their bogus notion of federalism

Texas Governor Rick Perry is one of the latest entrants into the 2012 Republican presidential primary race. In fact, in barely a week he has managed to displace former Governor Mitt Romney in polls as Republicans’ favorite choice. Clearly, Republicans are more enamored with his record than voters overall will be, once they get the facts on his “Texas miracle”. One thing Perry is very adamant about, aside from the usual whines about cutting taxes, is federalism.

I’m betting some of you don’t know what federalism is. Just incase you don’t know, federalism is not the philosophy that the federal government should do more and states less. What federalism really means is that sovereignty is split between the national government and state governments. In the usual dopey Republican thinking, federalism means that the federal government should do almost nothing and the states should do almost everything else. “Republican federalism” generally means they choose to ignore the constitutional provision that the federal government is empowered to “promote the general welfare”. Moreover, they would also be happy to ignore, if not outright repeal the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution that says U.S. federal laws are the supreme law of the land. In short, they believe states are more than peers to the federal government; states are superior to the federal government. States are the masters, and the federal government is a little yappy dog that they occasionally throw dog biscuits at to keep happy. The federal government is a servile little puppy that amuses the states and is good at growling at strangers that come near its borders.

Rick Perry’s latest personal beef is that he thinks “Obamacare” is unconstitutional and thus should be repealed. He believes states have the authority to create statewide health insurance plans, or not, but definitely not the federal government. The states should be incubators of laws to see what works in the real world. At the same time, Perry is being a typically schizophrenic Republican by castigating Mitt Romney for the Massachusetts’s health care law, because it requires citizens to have health insurance, except in some limited cases.  Massachusetts’s law, of course, was something of a model for “Obamacare”, known by its proper name as the Affordable Care Act. If this dichotomy bothers you then congratulations: you are a rational person. If you a Republican, it should not bother you at all. Of course you can be for states’ rights while at the same time being selectively against state laws that you believe impinge on personal freedom, even if you don’t live in the state. In fact, you can be for federal laws requiring that all states prohibit gay marriage or abortion, while still believing in states’ rights and ignoring the Supremacy Clause. It’s crazily confusing to those Americans who retain their sanity, but wholly sensible to Republicans.

Anyhow, Perry wants to repeal “Obamacare” natch, and let states be laboratories for health care reform, unless it looks anything like Massachusetts’s health care law. In that case, at best he will hold his nose and accept it as the price of federalism. At worst, he will argue that the original intent of the constitution does not allow states to encroach in this area because it impinges on personal freedom. In general though he believes the federal government’s authority should be much more limited than it is, probably limited to providing for the common defense and controlling immigration, and not much else. Why? Because he thinks this was the founding fathers’ original intent, in spite of the words in the constitution ratified by the many states saying otherwise!

In Rick Perry’s ideal world, agencies like the Food and Drug Administration would be abolished and the money saved on these wasteful agencies returned to taxpayers. States would choose whether or not to regulate drugs. In fact, states already can regulate drugs. Here in Virginia, for example, I cannot buy Sudafed over the counter without giving them my driver’s license, which is scanned. A record of the purchase is put into a database that tracks how many times I bought Sudafed. Basically, Virginia wants to know if I might be running a meth lab. Virginia can extend federal law, but cannot selectively override federal law. This is perfectly clear to most of us who have read the Supremacy Clause.

I do hope that Rick Perry’s idea of federalism at least extends to allowing the federal government to regulate the airwaves and airline traffic. Because otherwise, goodness, it would be a hell of a mess trying to fly anywhere or keeping deviant radio waves from illegally crossing a state’s boundaries. However, neither of these is directly mentioned in the U.S. constitution so maybe they are not allowed. After all, original intent triumphs everything.

The Supremacy Clause exists specifically to answer the question that Rick Perry and so many other Republicans raise. You would think that they might, like, actually read it. The Supremacy Clause also has the side effect of allowing activities that affect the country as a whole to be done nationally once, instead of replicating it inefficiently and piecemeal up to fifty times across the fifty states. Do we really want to take federalism to the extreme where the New York State health department says that heroin is an addictive drug and hence illegal, while California judges it is a matter of individual liberty and should thus not be regulated? Do we really want one state to allow shoddy Chinese drywall while another state prohibits it?

It all sounds so dreadfully confusing and, worse, incredibly inefficient. Granted the federal government has lots of bad laws, but at least if it is repealed it is gone nationally. If federalism existed the way Rick Perry envisions it, most of us would find it too risky to ever leave our state, simply because there are too many ways you can get in trouble with the law moving to another state. You couldn’t count on any law being consistent. We’d probably want an opinion from our lawyers before we moved to another state. Our lifestyle, say living with our gay spouse, could be criminal in a neighboring state. One state may be okay with Miranda rights, another prohibit them.

My wan hope is that as Americans learn more about Perry and other Republican’s bizarre idea of federalism that they will come to my conclusion: it’s crazy and wrong. But it’s more than that: it’s unconstitutional. Let’s just hope if someone like Perry does get elected president and tries out this notion of federalism, our federal judges will apply the U.S. constitution as it was actually written in judging the cases. This includes those inconvenient clauses like the Supremacy Clause that plainly say what they plainly say.

 
The Thinker

Shake, rattle and roll

I like things stable. One of the reasons I have concerns about retiring on the west coast is because I don’t want to find the ceiling on top of me at three a.m. That could hurt. So I live on the east coast instead where earthquakes are not entirely unknown, but they are so infrequent and mild that when they occur most people don’t even notice. People assume a garbage truck came down the street instead.

It’s ironic that when the magnitude 5.8 earthquake occurred today, I was in my office at the U.S. Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. The USGS of course monitors earthquakes as one of its main missions. For a change, the USGS national headquarters was near the quake’s epicenter, if 72 miles is “near”. The quake’s number on the Richter scale meant it was a significant event, but not enough to cause more than minor damage. Having never noticed an earthquake before, I didn’t know how to compare it. My guess was it was a 4.0.

At first I thought someone was coming down the hall with an unusually large and heavy cart, because the quake’s rumble resembled a cart on wheels. The rumbling kept getting longer and louder. “Are you going to pass already?” I was thinking when the shaking got so noticeable I realized it could not be a cart, or garbage truck or even a cement mixer. It had to be an earthquake. It was enough to get our attention, but not enough for me to feel panic, just concern.

One of the few things I remembered about surviving an earthquake was to stand under a solid structure. My doorframe was as solid and ready a place as I could find. So I stood there and noticed most of my office neighbors were doing the same or wandering the hall.

The whole thing lasted maybe a minute, with twenty seconds or so where the quake seemed to slowly settle down and felt like it might recur. The shaking seemed more horizontal than vertical. Fortunately, nothing fell. The electricity stayed on.

Your would think after an earthquake the USGS of all places would know what to do next, but mostly people stood around wondering what to do. The event, which occurred about 1:53 PM Eastern Time, was one we had never practiced for. We had the occasional fire drill, of course, as well as tornado drills where we went to a designated shelter in place position. Once there was a tornado warning in our neighborhood and we actually moved to our shelter in place. But earthquakes? Since no quake of this magnitude has happened on the east coast since 1944, we had no idea what to do. I suspect that will change.

It took about ten minutes before someone in a position of authority decided we should evacuate the building. I took the elevator. No one warned me not to do so and I did so automatically; it never occurred to me to use the staircase because there was no fire. Fortunately, the elevators were unimpaired. Employees milled around outside for a while, then were allowed back in just to get their stuff. I just went home, fearing some pipe was broken.

Whatever kind of earthquake we got, it was the type that did little damage. My cat was a bit freaked out when I returned home, but a careful inspection of my property determined no problems. Some sirens wailed for a while, traffic was backed up prematurely in spots, but the only impact most of us noticed was that our cell phones could not connect to the network. Instant message and email turned out to be more reliable than phones or text messages. Part of this is due to the Internet’s architecture, which is highly fault tolerant. Way to go, engineers!

My experience at last with an earthquake does not particularly have me rethinking living in an earthquake zone. Earthquakes are one of these natural hazards that you cannot assume will never happen to you, but by living in the right places you can reduce your chances of experiencing them or, if they happen, that they will cause destruction or injury. It is likely that I will never feel another earthquake. In a way we were fortunate. It would not have taken a much more powerful earthquake, or one where the dynamics of motion were different, for it to be a much more painful and expensive accident.

Still, while not overly powerful, the earthquake was still widely felt, reaching from Canada into Northern Florida. I expect the experience in those states was much different than here near the epicenter. Had the quake gone on much longer, I probably would have moved from a concerned to a panicked state instead.

 
The Thinker

Review: Uncle Vanya at the Kennedy Center

One of the neat things about living close to our nation’s capital (if you have the money) is to occasionally see top actors perform live on stage. Uncle Vanya, now playing at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater through August 27, gives you three well-known movie actors performing on stage. All happen to be associated with the Sydney Theatre Company, and one of them, Cate Blanchett is not only a member of the company but its co-Artistic Director and co-CEO as well. Yes, the play Uncle Vanya is on tour and Washington is just its latest destination since the company first put it on stage in Sydney last November.

It feels at times like a mini Lord of the Rings reunion because we get two stars from those movies: Blanchett (who played Galadriel) and Hugo Weaving (Elrond, but perhaps best known as Agent Smith in three Matrix movies). But wait: there’s more, specifically Richard Roxburgh, probably best known as Count Dracula in the vacuous but very popular Gothic comedy Van Helsing.

It’s fair to say that Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya is a departure for all three actors. No question about it: Uncle Vanya is challenging material to work on stage. Happily, Director Tamas Ascher does an impressive job rendering this bleak story interesting on the stage. It is based on a new play by Andrew Upton, which is based on Chekhov’s original story.

Doubtless it would have been even more challenging to render it without its stellar cast. Still, at its root is a story that is both comedic and tragic that will be hard for most Americans to relate to, unless they are recent Russian immigrants. In the Russia of the 19th century, there were lots of unwashed peasants and few ways to ascend in the social hierarchy. The desperate need to be part of a higher social status is the animus of this entire play. With the exception of retired university professor Serebryakov (John Bell) and visiting physician Astrov (Hugo Weaving) everyone’s self worth seems bound to the professor’s. Through marriage to his late first wife, the retired professor has a country estate populated mostly by in-laws of his first wife, but also the biological daughter of he and his first wife. (Hayley McElhinney plays his daughter Sonya.) Since retiring, the crotchety professor, suffering from a combination of gout and a chronic lack of empathy allegedly common to many university professors, has the household in an unnatural state. Everyone is obsessively concerned with the professor’s needs and health, and will sacrifice their own physical and mental health so they can rest in the shadows of his academic glory.

It soon becomes clear that the professor’s reputation is exaggerated and that he is basically a very annoying old man. Everyone, with the possible exception of the relatively carefree Doctor Astrov, must don roles unsuited to them. Uncle Vanya (Richard Roxburgh) has managed the estate for decades, and did so faithfully for the poverty wages of five hundred rubles a year, while also spending late nights with his niece Sonya translating and promoting the professor’s writings. He still mourns the loss of his sister (the professor’s first wife), described as among the most beautiful of women. At the same time he is hopelessly in love with the professor’s second wife Yelena (Blanchett). Yelena meanwhile feels hopelessly trapped in her bad marriage, yet her self worth too depends on being the professor’s wife, so she slavishly caters to his every need while he either ignores or abuses her, while she repeatedly spurns Vanya’s numerous advances.

Poor “plain” daughter Sonya feels overshadowed by her beautiful stepmother, while secretly loving Doctor Astrov. Astrov though largely hates mankind, and is something of an environmentalist, concerned about a diminished forest he is trying to protect. He seems to hate his profession, is inured to the feelings of others, is nihilistic in nature and in particular is clueless about Sonya’s infatuation with him. Also on the estate is Vanya’s mother Maria (Sandy Gore), an old nurse Marina (Jacki Weaver) and Telegrin (Anthony Phelan), an impoverished landowner who helps the family out. Periodic bouts of comedy do help to lighten a grim story, but the fundamental problem remains: the plot is one that is hard for us to relate to.

Fundamentally, Uncle Vanya is a play about people trapped in roles and expectations, driven toward being real people instead of stereotypes, but unable to do so. As you would expect this leads to enormous conflicted feelings that have been ruthlessly repressed over the decades but which leach out under the extreme pressure of the professor’s domineering and crotchety demeanor. It almost makes you root for the Russian Revolution, so they can escape these roles, except the playwright puts these characters in somewhat more modern times, presumably around the 1950s because the radio and record player are around.

The Sydney Theatre Company delivers the goods with clever staging, directing, and fine acting that puts emotion into the gaps between words to enhance an otherwise thin script. Roxburgh’s performance is especially passionate, but Hugo Weaving and Hayley McElhinney probably get most of the time on stage. Weaving typically plays darker roles, but here he is one of the happier characters. McElhinney is anything but plain, and does an exceptional job balancing her character’s passions with the requirements of being dutiful and somewhat diminished by her mother’s low social class. Will anyone break free of the prison of society’s expectations? Come and see the show to find out, if you can get tickets. (Hint: given its bleakness, don’t get your hopes up.)

For those enamored with Hollywood stars, you get to enjoy Blanchett and Weaving together on stage for long periods of time. They are clearly comfortable acting with each other and friends. It is fun to see some sexual energy between them rendered intimately on stage. Indeed, in a brief scene they come close to getting it on.

If you enjoy your coffee extra bitter, there is much to enjoy in this fine cup of java.

 
The Thinker

But we actually NEED those government services

It’s hard to believe, but there are senators and congressional representatives who actually want to be in the Supercongress.

The Supercongress (otherwise known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) was a creation of recent legislation signed into law to raise the federal debt ceiling. It will consist of twelve members, six from the House and six from the Senate, with each house contributing three Republicans and Democrats each, appointed by their majority and minority leaders. The Supercongress gets to write a bill that will realize at least $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over ten years. The law will be voted on by each house and only a simple majority is required for passage. No amendments or filibusters are allowed. If their recommendations are not voted into law and signed by the president, the “one size fits all” meat cleaver comes out, chopping most programs including defense by large amounts, exempting only some of the biggest entitlements.

It’s clear that the legislation authorizing an extension of the federal debt ceiling did not solve our deficit problem. That’s the job of the Supercongress: twelve of 535 people in Congress, required to seek compromise that so far has proven elusive. By law, the committee must have its recommendations by November 23, 2011 and both houses must vote on it by December 23, 2011.

In the field of project management, we have use a term called the triple constraint. Every project is constrained by three forces: cost, scope and schedule. If you want to manage a project properly, you must adjust these factors intelligently or the project will fail to meet its objectives of delivering a project on time and within cost. The federal government has its own triple constraints: taxes, deficits and programs. In the past, no one wanted to raise taxes and no one wanted services cut, so deficits expanded. Now deficits cannot expand, at least beyond the current debt ceiling, without new legislation. This means that either taxes have to rise, programs must be cut, or some combination of the above.

Republicans think they are being principled by saying they will not allow taxes or the deficit to rise, meaning all deficit reduction will come from program cuts. Members of the new Supercongress are already nervous. Some of them are carefully qualifying their conditions. For example, some Republicans are saying they might allow revenues to increase by “closing loopholes”, as if these were not tax increases. This scenario is unlikely in any event because Republicans will be pressured by their party not to permit any tax increases. Even if some new taxes become part of the bargain, it won’t begin to be enough to close the deficit gap. As much as Republicans would like to get rid of the EPA and Education Departments, Democrats will ensure these agencies would survive. In any event, these programs are tiny compared to entitlements. Which means the only way to realize savings will be to cut entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. In short, the committee and Congress would have to vote in favor of a package guaranteed to cheese off the voting public come November 2012.

A few outcomes can be predicted with reasonable certainty:

  • Those Republicans and Tea Partiers dead set against raising both taxes and the debt ceiling will pine for the good old days when they would just charge the difference, and wonder why they were so brainless to press the issue when they will take the political fallout. Most of them will be thrown out of office if they follow through on their convictions. Their hands have not yet been pressed to the hot stove yet. When it is, they will realize that America has an important message for them: Don’t you dare mess with my Social Security and Medicare! They will learn something amazing: a vocal minority called The Tea Party does not represent Americans at large.
  • You don’t mess with American business either. American business depends as much on the federal dole as do Social Security and Medicare recipients. Take, for example, our bloated defense industry. Do you think they are going to go on a diet without expending massive amounts of capital to ensure they are exempted? Granted, a lot of defense spending is wasted, purchasing armaments, equipment and services that our own defense secretary says we don’t need. But that money still goes somewhere. It feeds a huge array of middle class defense and technology workers, and keeps afloat companies like Northrup Grumman, Boeing and Unisys. It pays for lavish salaries for their CEOs, provides for their corporate jets and their personal staffs. Take away their defense business and for all practical purposes they go bankrupt. Since defense spending still be severely curtailed with automatic cuts, they would be dramatically impacted. Expect a whole lot of hullaballoo if the tail does not continue to wag the dog.
  • But all that wailing will be nothing compared to heat Congress will get from the soldiers if their retirement benefits are scaled back and their health care costs go through the roof. They already work at substandard wages, often 24/7 in battle zones, and put their lives on the line for our freedom. They do so for patriotic reasons but also because the military offers a fair deal: low pay now for retiring at age 40 on half pay and virtually no health care costs. This is some compensation for the hassle they endure while in the military. They are going to go ballistic. Weren’t these same politicians spouting platitudes about supporting the troops?
  • When push comes to shove, which will happen sometime after whatever laws gets passed or not, future congresses are going to do the only sensible thing they can do in this mess to minimize the political impact: raise taxes, mostly on those who will inflict the lowest political pain. Eventually Congress will figure out this will be the rich people. In addition, poor people will continue to take it on the chin. If any entitlement really becomes a shadow of itself, it will be Medicaid. In the eyes of Congress, the poor always have been and will be second class citizens.

Republicans operate under the illusion that government is a massively wasteful institution. It is certainly bloated, but mostly out of necessity. Major problems like income security and health care in old age do not happen due to the genius of the private sector. Had such solutions existed, none of these programs would have come into existence in the first place.

The reality is the world we live in is incredibly complex, and we need a government to ensure it all works in the first place. Abolishing the EPA does not solve the pollution problem. Getting rid of the Education Department will not make American children better educated. What we need is greater value from the services we already have. We need to control the costs of entitlements like Medicare so people get more benefit. Congress is supposed to look at programs like Medicare and say, “This fee for service thing is too costly. We need to do it more intelligently and pay for outcomes instead.” That’s the real job Congress was elected to do, they just don’t realize it yet. They will after the wreckage of the 2012 election.

Congress can start with a few of my suggestions.

 
The Thinker

Something about Cambridge

We are at the Royal Sonesta Hotel on the banks of the Charles River in (as the Car Talk guys like to say) “our fair city” Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge may be the egghead center of the country, since it houses both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The whole Boston area though is rife with universities and colleges, but Cambridge is in particular, which makes the city feel unnaturally young and overly educated. Yet the pretentiousness I expected to find in Cambridge (and in the Boston area in general) does not appear to exist. What I have found instead is something much more interesting: a real city, a real community and a friendliness among its citizenry that puts even southern states notorious for being friendly (like Tennessee) to shame.

If you want to experience Cambridge friendliness, try the 5th Street Laundry off Cambridge Street in East Cambridge. That’s where we found ourselves on Friday afternoon, with a large suitcase full of smelly laundry permeated with the odor of sunscreen. There is no humbler a place than a Laundromat. We arrived by taxi because it was just a bit too far to reach by dragging a suitcase on wheels. Inside we found customers, principally young people, all too happy to strike up conversations with us. It became more surreal when we exited the laundry and waited outside for our cab. A guy in the house next to the laundry became curious about what we were doing, started talking to us, and impromptu began flagging down taxis for us. No thanks, we said, as we expected our taxi to arrive momentarily. However, after waiting half an hour, he came out again and flagged another taxi for us, which we took back to the hotel.

Standing in the shade outside the laundry we observed a close knit community in its summer bloom. People waved to each other from cars passing along Cambridge Street. Neighbors were chatting with other neighbors. People wandering in, out and by the laundry started talking to us. One guy saw a friend in a car nearby, motioned him to the side of the street, and got into a long, animated and friendly conversation with him.

The laundry experience turned out to be one of many that occurred not just here in Cambridge, but also in Boston, Charlestown and other places we have visited. There is a natural friendly curiosity to the citizenry around here, but most surprisingly, a willingness to help people, even strangers, that would make Jesus proud. In a city rife with students, we found we simply could not carry our luggage on and off buses or public transportation. Students would step forward and unsolicited help lug the baggage. This would never happen in Washington D.C. I assumed Boston was a lot like New York City: cold and impersonal, but this is simply not the case. People instinctively give up their bus seats to an older person. People of any ethnicity are overwhelmingly polite and helpful. It seems to be stitched into the character of this city. Maybe in poorer and more remote areas of Boston that we haven’t visited this is not true. Boston, like any major metropolitan area, has had its share of ethnic tensions over the years.

Yet particularly in Cambridge it does not seem to happen. Everyone just gets along, which is amazing because it is incredibly ethnically diverse, and English is just one of the dozens of languages you will hear on the streets and in the shops. Still, it remains a principally white city, with a peculiar mixture of eggheads and regular guys like Click and Clack from Car Talk, many of whom are deeply rooted in their city. Those who are not, like the many transient students, seem to pick up the friendly culture of the city almost instinctively.

One of the reasons we are in the Boston area is to check it out some more as a potential retirement spot, and you don’t understand a place until you spend some time in it. We are repeatedly told that most people want to retire from Boston, not to it. A friendly bus driver told us about Boston’s harsh winters, the numerous double digit snowfalls that the area receives, the crusty hard snow banks taller than your head, and how its only really nice season is summer, which at least in this area seems mild. All I can say is that if I could afford to live in a real community like Cambridge, why on earth would I want to leave it? Why move away from a city with charm, character and community to an impersonal suburb in Northern Virginia like where I live where I know by name no more than a handful of my neighbors? I have lived in denser communities and I know their downsides. I am sure the snow and the ice would be annoying, but it would be a small price to pay to live somewhere that is not just a place, but a real community.

Another thing about Cambridge, due in part I am sure to the number of bright students living here: the people here look gorgeous: healthy, attractive, vibrant, basically alive. Yes, of course you will find some obese people here, but much less than the country as a whole. In many ways, Cambridge reminds me of Boulder, Colorado, another city where if the people are not exactly young they are at least fit and healthy looking. Some you will find jogging along the various pathways, but I suspect that many are fit simply because life requires them to do much more walking than us ordinary, sedentary Americans.

There is little reason to own a car, but plenty of reason to take the T, Boston’s public transportation system, instead. Which means: walking to the bus stop, walking from the bus stop, walking in and off buses, and going up and down subway staircases for a good part of your day. Exercise is something that happens naturally as a consequence of living here. And speaking of public transportation, by Washington D.C. standards it is unbelievable cheap. We bought a 7 day pass for only $15. This means you can cover most if not all of your transportation costs for $60 a month. It is so much cheaper than owning a car and if you know your routes and schedules, not that much of an inconvenience either. One car per household should be plenty, and may be one more than needed. If I lived in Cambridge, I would be tempted to get rid of my car altogether. Most of life’s necessities are less than a few blocks away. If I could buy it within ten blocks or so, I’d probably walk there, otherwise I’d take a bike if the weather is seasonal or public transportation.

Retiring to Massachusetts is more my wife’s idea than mine. The more I experience the Boston area first hand, the more inclined I am to agree that this area may be the right place to hang my hat for the next stage of my life.

 
The Thinker

Not so smart on Wall Street

I had a feeling that our cruise would occur during an auspicious time. A last minute debt deal at least assured me that I would not be on furlough when I returned home. On the day our cruise set sail for Bermuda, the stock market plunged over six hundred points, the sixth worst point fall on record. Since then the trend has been mostly down, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down some four hundred points for the day as I write this (August 10, 2011). It feels a like 2008 all over again. Markets are especially nervous about national debts and obligations. The United States is hardly alone. Greece, Spain, France and Great Britain are among those countries that make their creditors nervous. The trigger this time was the downgrade of U.S. treasury bills by Standard and Poors, which last Friday cut our rating from AAA to AA+ status, the first downgrade in our history.

The market is desperately searching for safe harbors for capital, but is finding few of them. Our financial world is riskier than it was. Doubtless with these stock market declines my portfolio has been badly hit. Doubtless I lost my illusory millionaire status. I have no idea if we are plunging into a double dip recession or worse, but the tealeaves that our economy was having difficulty have not exactly been hard to read. Over the last few years, Wall Street has exhibited irrational enthusiasm and drove up stock prices to artificially high levels. It did this largely on hope, probably because recessions typically don’t last too long.

Wall Street obviously discounted the signs that this recovery, at least here in the United States, would be largely an illusion. Yet the signs were clear and unambiguous: an unemployment rate that would budge only grudgingly, a fearful middle class with no extra income, relatively high inflation and political intransigence that ensured that common sense would take a holiday. Standard and Poors finally acknowledged the obvious by lowering our bond rating. It did so not because our ability to pay bondholders was really in doubt, but because our country refuses to find a sensible financial path forward. With the debt ceiling deal, as usual, we pushed problems into the future and did not really fundamentally address any of them. We created a dubiously legal entity called a Super Congress which appears doomed to be dysfunctional. Everyone knows what would really calm the markets: some measure of tax increases to accompany expenditure reductions. This, of course, is exactly where Republicans in Congress will not go. While I am hopeful plunging markets may force Congress to exercise some common sense, it is mostly a fool’s hope. Perhaps the 2012 election will bring clarity, but if I were a betting person I would not bet on that either. So expect the stock market to remain in turmoil for some time.

I remain not too worried for myself as long as I have a decent job. I leave it to my financial advisor to keep me on a sound long-term financial strategy. But I can pretend to be scared like mostly everyone on CNBC, one of the few channels available to us here on the cruise ship. I once opined that capitalism is our true religion. Watching CNBC certainly reinforced this opinion. From watching CNBC, it is hard not to conclude that the financial class is largely a nattering bore, obsessed with the minutia of the moment and largely tuned out to the facts in front of them. There are only a few things that really matter about investing in a company, but you would never know it from listening to these CNBC talking heads. What matters is a company’s track record, how leveraged it is by debt, the opinions of their customers and their ability to innovate products that people want.

Look at the companies that are truly prospering, like Apple Computers. You know that money invested in Apple will probably return growth and dividends over the long run. I have no idea whether their share prices are overvalued or not, but I do know owning shares of Apple means your money is probably not invested down some rat hole. Whereas when you look at other companies, say Bank of America, whose balance sheet is rife with risky subprime mortgages, you can reasonably infer it’s a risky stock in the long term, because it was being managed by short-term profit-obsessed bozos in the mid 2000s when clearer heads were needed. I know I would need a lot of convincing to invest in Bank of America. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Instead, I simply refuse to become obsessed about short term trends in the stock market. To the talking heads on CNBC, that seems to be all that matters. In my opinion, short term investors are basically gamblers. I put no more faith in them than I would on some guy on a winning streak in a Las Vegas casino. Short term investing is a dangerous game. If you have the nerve for that sort of financial life, like many investors tuned into CNBC, go for it, but you are likely to end up losing a lot of money. Instead, us non-financial wizards can save ourselves a lot of angst by investing in companies with the attributes I mentioned above, holding on to them for the long term, balancing our portfolios yearly to meet our financial goals and cashing them in selectively during retirement. These short term market changes always disappear over the long term. The only short term decisions I would make would be to buy solid companies whose stock price is artificially discounted as a result of irrational and wholly short-term fears on Wall Street, but only if I had some spare cash. Presumably my other assets would remain solid for the long term, and I’d want to hold onto them.

I am not a stock analyst. However, I do know a fool’s errand when I see one. Despite the endless blather on CNBC, it’s obvious that even the wizards on Wall Street cannot accurately predict short term trends. In fact, no one can since by definition the future is always unknown. So if you are listening to CNBC analysts thinking they see things you don’t, disabuse yourself of the idea.  Instead, when judging the economy, judge it by the economy you see and experience, which is the one that matters.

The short term market is driven principally by fear and greed, which depend on each other. It’s like an endless game of tug of war and like a Las Vegas casino, the odds are stacked against you by default. Rumors that are widely believed can be as good as gold for a short while, even if they are wholly fallacious. All sorts of short term fools will follow analysts on CNBC and elsewhere and dump perfectly good stocks for potentially risky ones elsewhere. You are likely a better predictor of market trends than they are. After all, these wizards built up stock prices on the hope for a recovery that never really materialized. Once again they have been proven catastrophically incorrect. And yet the economy will truly recover in time. It always has. When it does you want your portfolio to be full of solid and meaningful assets.

Instead, I recommend that you do your best to tune out the daily stock market ups and downs and keep investing in the long term. If you are not someone who wants to waste your time getting into the minutia of stock market analysis like me, then get a trusted financial advisor with the long view who will allocate your investments into funds that are well managed and include companies that have the attributes I mentioned.

 
The Thinker

Mark does Bermuda

What can you say about Bermuda? First, there is no getting around it: Bermuda is isolated and tiny. It’s about twenty miles across, only a mile wide at its widest point and shaped like a fishhook. We got conflicting accounts on its geological history. One account says it is volcanic in origin and it sits on the caldera of a long extinct volcano. The other account is that its land mass is essentially crushed coral reef, which over millions of years of pressure hardened into Bermuda limestone. This makes Bermuda fairly squat as islands go, with its highest point only a couple of hundred feet above sea level. Both of these scenarios sound plausible.

Aquamarine seas come at no extra charge in Bermuda

Aquamarine seas come at no extra charge in Bermuda

Second, they drive on the wrong side of the road, unless you live in that part of the world where left is the right side of the road. No superhighways here. If there is a four lane road on the island I must have missed it. The roads are uniformly narrow. It’s a good thing you cannot rent a car here. Those of us from the states would end up injured or dead from clipping cars coming the other way. Bermudans are limited to a single car by law, unless you happen to be a physician. The very idea would raise the hackles of any true blooded American but in truth one car is plenty. First, there are only so many places you can go in a car. Second, when you get there you may have trouble finding a place to park your car. Third, the public transportation here is ubiquitous and relatively cheap. Traffic is limited to 35 kph (about 20 mph) by law. For those who need to get around more quickly, there are water taxis that are also quite affordable.

Third, Bermuda is not for cheapskates. It is part of the British Commonwealth. Gas runs in excess of eight dollars a gallon, which explains why all the cars are compact and fuel efficient. Bermuda does have its own cows and dairy but there is not a whole lot of land for them to graze. With a population at about sixty thousand, every time a cruise ship like ours comes into port, its population grows by five percent. Given this reality and the regular arrival of mega cruise ships, you would think that tourism would be its primary industry. Instead, offshoring appears to be their principle industry. Bermuda specializes in hosting companies like HBC Financial that make most of their money on the mainland but don’t want to pay taxes in the United States. The only city on this island, Hamilton, is clustered with buildings hosting offices for companies like HBC.

Presidents and CEOs of these companies of course cannot live just anywhere in Bermuda, so they have pricey estates starting in the millions of dollars, often with private docks, personal chefs and housekeepers. A few grandfathered people have estates on some of the islands in the Great or Little Sound. So in some ways Bermuda resembles Hawaii, both for its high cost of living and its remoteness, but also because people of more modest means who keep the gas stations and food stores running are stretched. The cheapest houses in Bermuda start around $400,000.

Fourth, Bermuda is humid and warm. It may be at the same latitude as South Carolina, but the Gulf Stream runs right by it, pushing warm water and stifling humidity with it. This gives most of the water in and around Bermuda a delightful aquamarine color. Its isolation keeps the waters clear as well. Thankfully in August the temperature rarely gets into the nineties, but with the air almost always constantly saturated with water, you are likely to be sweating while outside. Fortunately, most of the time there are also steady tropical trade winds, which makes the humidity bearable, providing you are positioned so you can feel them. Officially Bermuda’s climate is subtropical, but it feels tropical. The vegetation is lush and everywhere. The palm trees are fewer and smaller than islands closer to the equator but there are flowers everywhere free for the picking. The aloe plant is native to the island, as its properties to reduce the pain from the sunburn were quickly discovered. Its beaches are famous for their pink sand, but to actually see it you have to dig a foot or so into the beach.

Fifth, Bermuda is a beautiful place. Of the places I have seen in the Caribbean, Bermuda is more beautiful than any of them and arguably more livable. There are no snakes in Bermuda and nothing in the way of mosquitoes either. It’s a wholly sensible island, doubtless due to its British influence. Bermuda became strategically important to Great Britain after Americans won the Revolutionary War. Convict labor and slaves were used to build its many forts, the most prominent of which sits next to the cruise terminal and now houses the National Maritime Museum. It is a multicultural country. Offshoring whites and celebrities own much of its prime real estate, but it offers a mixed palette of the species homo sapiens, with Blacks and Portuguese having the heaviest minority influence. For an American, it is tourist friendly. The U.S. dollar is accepted the same as the Bermuda dollar, and U.S. coins work in the vending machines. Getting back on your cruise ship is easy. You just need a photo ID and your room key. The natives are part of the British Commonwealth, but many speak with American accents. You can also hear a mixture of Caribbean accents from somewhat more southern latitudes.

I wonder what the natives do for amusement here. It helps if you like the sea because boating and boating related activities like scuba diving and parasailing are popular pastimes. Diving opportunities are plentiful with dozens of shipwrecks to explore among the coral reefs. You can see the island in a day, and take in all its tourist attractions in a leisurely manner within a week. There are a few cinemas, but I doubt an island of 60,000 has a symphonic orchestra, although band concerts in the park at Hamilton happen regularly. The local newspaper is widely read in a way not seen in the states these days. For those with the money there are pricey golf courses, but if you live in Bermuda it helps to like the simple life.

Hurricanes are a fact of life here. We dodged tropical storm Emily getting here. The good news is that practical Bermudans have decided to adapt to hurricanes rather than deal with their wreckage. Bermudan houses are practically indestructible, anchored into the island’s limestone, reinforced with cinder block walls and sport white cement roofs ingeniously created to also capture fresh water in a cistern below the ground. Cement roofs and cinder block walls ensure that the houses will still be around after the hurricane passes. Roads and bridges may get destroyed in a hurricane, but the country has otherwise adapted well to these facts of tropical life, proving that engineering can deal with almost any extreme weather situation. It’s a wonder that we don’t require the same sorts of building codes along our hurricane prone states.

During our three days in Bermuda we have sampled a fair amount of the island. The city of Hamilton is charming: neither too big nor too small but very compact with many pricey boutiques. There are no Walmarts in Bermuda. No McDonalds, and no franchises of any type except for one KFC in Hamilton. This makes Bermuda a decent place for entrepreneurs, and we encountered some, including a guy who ran an internet café near the cruise terminal. Hamilton, like most of the rest of the island, has houses largely in pastel colors. Apparently there are no restrictions on house colors, but pastel colors work so well here.

View from the National Maratime Museum in Bermuda

View from the National Maratime Museum in Bermuda

There are a few tourist attractions. There are caves you can explore. We took in Crystal Caves, which was neat but like the island’s stature compared to the rest of the world, it was modest compared to others we have seen. Their aquarium is respectable but nothing to write home about and their zoo is missing the lions, bears and elephants you sort of expect. The most impressive sites we saw were actually close to the Royal Navy Dockyard where our ship was berthed. The National Museum of Bermuda offers impressive views of the Great Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, along with lacquered over cannons, rusting ship anchors and a museum where, if you can endure the heat, you can learn much about the history of Bermuda, the slaves and convicts who built most of its forts, and the many sailing vessels used here over the years.

Bermuda makes an interesting tourist destination, as long as you keep your expectations modest. You are likely to feel charmed by the place. It’s not in the Caribbean per se, but it has all the best parts of the Caribbean without its frequent filth and poverty. The island is on Atlantic Time, so East Coasters like us must adjust your clocks one hour ahead.

 

 
The Thinker

Fine cruising aboard the M-S Norwegian Dawn

Saturday, August 6, 2011 somewhere in the Atlantic

Freestyle cruising, them marketers on Norwegian Cruise Lines call it. But as we waited in Boston Harbor to cast off for Bermuda aboard the M-S Norwegian Dawn, freestyle cruising apparently is mostly about being loud. Up on Deck 13 the bon voyage party was in full swing. The cruise director Johnny Cash Sanchez (yes, that’s his real name) and band have much of the teens, preteens and young adults aboard boogying to some frankly dreadful music, like “WMCA” by The Village People. Hamburgers and corn on the cob there are aplenty. Most of the people on the deck are dressed for weather ten degrees hotter. The weather in Boston is spectacular: blue skies, but with the weather in the mid seventies it is not quite bikini weather. Finally, about an hour later than scheduled, our thousand foot long behemoth cruise ship finally leaves its birth. Accompanied by the usual pilot boats but also state police boats, we slowly move out into Boston Harbor, our fourteen decks such an obstruction that we temporarily shut down a runway at nearby Logan airport lest an aircraft graze our mast on approach.

Bon Voyage Party aboard the Norwegian Dawn

Bon Voyage Party aboard the Norwegian Dawn

We last cruised fifteen years ago. We were overdue to reconnect with the cruising lifestyle. Fifteen years ago this size of cruise ship was more on the drawing board than at sea. Today it is a run of the mill cruise ship: supersized for the supersized Americans it carries. We are still astonished by the M-S Norwegian Dawn, built in 1998: its length, its girth, the number of decks, its opulence, and the attention to every detail. The cruising industry must be extremely competitive. This is good for customers. This seven day cruise was surprisingly affordable. Fifteen years ago a stateroom with a window was too expensive for us. Today with discounts we were able to book a stateroom with a view, roughly 200 square feet, for about $2300, about $600 of that just in port taxes.  It is clean, comfortable and with our window it offers a hypnotic view of the sea rushing past us.

Norwegian Cruise Lines wants us to know that everyone is at our service, and they sure are. It’s almost a fetish. As we pulled out of Boston Harbor Friday night, we enjoyed our first dinner in the Aqua Dining Room where we were obsessively fussed over. My wife’s sensitivity to pepper resulted in entrees that were made especially for her devoid of them. It was hard to take more than two sips from my water glass without a server trying to refill it. After finally deciding on chocolate cake for dessert, I made the mistake of telling the waitress I thought about of getting the apple pie instead. She brought both.

It’s no secret that food is plentiful on cruise ships. The most daunting task in this life of leisure is not to overeat. Judging by the girth of most passengers and their heaping plates of pizzas, burgers and fries, they will fail at this task. Twenty four hour buffets allow not just constant grazing, but constant gluttony. Having sampled the buffet for lunch, I found I preferred sit down restaurant instead with tastier entrees and smaller portions.

Top tier dining on the Norwegian Dawn comes at extra cost and requires reservations, but main dining rooms Aqua and The Venetian won’t leave you feeling cheated. The Venetian restaurant offers a breathtaking view of the ship’s rear. We happened to get the table at the very back and center of the ship. Both the Venetian and the Aqua are classy places to dine; gorgeously arranged rooms and with linens replaced with each set of customers. The Venetian comes with its own pianist in a tuxedo with an appreciation for popular musicals. Yet I have had better dining on other cruise ships. The best dining I ever had on a cruise ship was on our first cruise in 1995 aboard the late Dolphin cruise line’s Seabreeze I, an ancient ship by cruising standards (built in 1958) but blessed with gourmet cuisine. True story: the S.S. Seabreeze I now rests on the ocean floor off the coast of Virginia, having succumbed to rough seas on its way north for a refitting.

Those older ships were missing stabilizers now common on cruise ships. The result was I spent a couple of days on that cruise seasick. Aboard the Norwegian Dawn, seasickness is not an issue. I get more turbulence on a gentle airline flight. It helps that the ship has stabilizers and that the Atlantic Ocean is relatively calm: four to six foot seas on our journey to Bermuda. There is a gentle swaying of the deck, but nothing that triggers any feelings of seasickness. Bonine is available in our stateroom just in case.

Everyone is at your service, but that doesn’t mean that they are not also looking for ways to get into your wallet. The principle method is to keep you plastered at one of the eight bars across the ship, but there is also the compulsory casino, bingo and duty-free shops where you can buy likely very nice but much overpriced jewelry. We won’t be adding much to their bottom line, as we tend toward being abstemious and gambling simply does not interest us. A massage does very much interest my wife, so this will be our one indulgence with this cruising vacation.

I wonder when a cruise company will take this “at your service” fetish to the next level. There are already cruises for swingers, so apparently cruise ship staff can work inured among naked clientele. Why not enhance the bottom line and offer prostitutes as well? After all, once you are in international waters the cruise line is free to decide what they will allow. I am sure there are plenty of undersexed people on these cruises who might want to get back in touch with their libidinous natures. Such a service would give room service a whole new meaning.

I did not need a prostitute but we did very much need a vacation. If we have a problem it is that we do not take more vacations. We live our lives generally stuck in the rut of working, paying bills, doing chores and when leisure allows surfing the Internet. Surfing the Internet here aboard the Norwegian Dawn is generally a privilege for those with deeper pockets than ours. Per minute rates range from forty to 75 cents a minute. So we will wait until we are in Bermuda and find an affordable Internet café.

For me, the most important aspect of cruising is simply communing with the sea again. By nature I am not a beach person, but there is something awesome and humbling about being a speck of a boat in an immense ocean. Cruise satisfaction for me simply comes from having a deck chair, a book and a nice view of the ocean. I treasure the gentle sound of the waves moving past the sides of the ship, the gentle slow sway of the deck beneath my feet and the meditative feeling that comes from standing while holding on to a handrail and gazing out at the immensity of the ocean.

Next: a report on Bermuda.

P.S. To Laura, from Terri: I am a medium well and having a wonderful time.

 

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