Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Best Part 2.

Man it's hard to sit down and write one of these, but since I was in Baltimore just a few days ago we'll just all have to imagine dusty little seagulls* and get on with this, most likely awkward, stab at trying to sum up one of the most mind-bendingly irrepressible years I have yet had to float through. To paraphrase a bit, it certainly looked like there were two, options on the table, either we would live through a quite content and boring version of the past while sinking deeper into a murky, dank and disgusting swamp, or we could strive for something just beyond our reach while running the risk of devouring one another. The endgame of both would be unending trials of quiet desperation. At least at times, and in darkened rooms, it felt that way.

Certainly in Wall-e, we could hear these songs, but in the end Peter Gabriel sang neither, and Frank Rich decided any environmental platform should be based solely on this lonely robot. Even setting aside its biblical underpinnings – thematically, it's essentially Paradise Lost -- Wall-e's strength lies in its complete and utter disregard for how movies are supposed to be made. This tiny robot, certainly the oldest thing still fully working on planet earth, accidentally sets in progress, well, when you really think about it, not much of anything at all. He's completely oblivious to the fact that around him history is getting a healthy dose of methamphetamines, and here's the funny part, that dose has been the ultimate product of laissez-faire economics for close to a thousand years. All it takes to kickstart history again is some late night web-surfing** and a simple flick of a switch. Wall-e could have sat on the bench, and most of the film would have happened along the same lines, though probably with less enthusiasm in the end product. By the same token, however, when the movie opens, it is clear he holds the past as nothing more than a collection of otherwordly curiosities, as if this Kasper Hauser has no intention of finding the actual function of the things he collects but is completely enthralled by their mysterious forms. Shoot, come to think off it, he's Plato's concept of man and Rousseau's noble savage all rolled into a pathos-laden trash compactor.

For a second or so, Wall-e's ineffectiveness looks an awful lot like a scam of apathy. But it's a brief second, and rather than wandering down this road the movie swerves towards a deeper, more profound point. Before we get to that though, we owe it to ourselves to make a u-turn and talk a bit about Pineapple Express.

Very much like Vladimir and Estragon***, Dale and Saul live a life of chilling out. For them the past is reruns of 227, and the future is filled with half assed dreams and ambitions: there's practically no way Dale will be a talk radio persona, or Saul an architect. However, in a bizarre world where life follows both Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Tango and Cash in equal measure, pretty much anything that can happen will, if you want it to, and that's pretty far out. So while stuck behind a rock and a very large hill, these dudes happen upon the supreme plan for life: "Safety first, then teamwork." Which, as far as mantras go, happens to be just about perfect. As an axiom, these four words allow for much more than the football chant "Carpe Diem", or the paragon of self-centeredness, "Do unto others…"**** This phrase implies an understanding towards the listener, but also a hope for reciprocity. In other words "Safety first, then teamwork" presents a world where the love we have for one another is grounded upon the work necessary to continue that love. These four words allow for a world in which we all are responsible for each other, and liberalism actually works.

In short, both Saul's "Safety first, then teamwork", and Wall-e's "Directive" are the reasons the rock and the hill are smaller than they look. For Wall-e, life and living are about the ever passing moment and the connections that make those moments possible. For Dale and Saul, they are the conversations, over cold, disgusting diner food, recounting how great it really is to be alive and be with friends. These are the moments we live for.

In conclusion, Caitlin and I are engaged, and now you all know why.

Safety first, then teamwork,

--Jeff

* See what I did there GP?
** When do you think we'll get a voice activated wikipedia?
*** Though these dudes don't wear bowlers.
**** And they also allow for two of the most strikingly beautiful scenes this year (for those who are counting, the scene in the woods, and the scene in the tree).

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Top Ten Movies
1. Pineapple Express – Duh.
2. Wall-e – Even the kids know to be silent at that last bit.
3. Synecdoche – About as good an argument for the weight of solipsism, at least recently.
4. Encounters at the End of the World – We're all penguins now.
5. Cassandra's Dream – First of two Woody Allen greats this year
6. Vicky Christina Barcelona – Less visceral than Cassandra, still though, really mean.
7. Paranoid ParkRiding with the devil.
8. Milk – That whistle shot is devastating.
9. W. – Just 'cause.
10. Miracle at St. Anna – Take that Eastwood!

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Epiphanies
Happy Days and Endgame at BAM – Of all times, now is the time to have a dance with Beckett
Till the Casket Drops, Clipse – "Voted for Obama, McCain's my tax bracket."
The Wire – J-School:"Federal agents requested 457 wiretaps in 2007, a 14-year low. Meanwhile, state and local prosecutors requested 1,751 wiretaps, more than triple the number in 1993."
Clube da Esquina no 2, Milton Nascimento – What my mind plays all day long.
David Byrne singing "You Can Call Me Al" at BAM – You haven't lived man, you haven't until you've seen this.
Mad Men – I'm worried 'bout this year's season, but this one was just fine.
Lil Wayne – Even though that last mixtape sucked.
Obama – It's exhausting to have a year long collective epiphany, but man we did.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Best. (Part 1, a Quickie)

Hands down the best song so far this year:

Jay-Z on iLike - Get updates inside iTunes

And, though it's I've only listened to it three times, this is a serious contender for best album.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sarah Palin and the Language of TV.

Even well into the digital age, TV still dictates the popular cultural in our country. For all the CBS's growth on the internet, its website only attracts a million visitors a day. Enough to put it in the top 50 sites out there, but far fewer than the 23 million viewers CSI attracts each week.

This is a relatively mundane point, because for most of our lives TV dictated each of our roles in society through generalities and drab dictations of the national zeitgeist. Each and every sitcom is engineered and group-tested into oblivion so it will grab hold of the largest audience. These facts are hardly hidden, because this is how TV shines. TV's orders from the mount are to present us with the most overarching view of America possible in 21 minutes or less. Which is quite amazing, see, because in effect TV shows us not only how America sees itself, but also what we are as a nation.

To those who prefer to find this in books, TV's endless rehashing of common plots, characters, and themes seems to only lead to a dulling of the senses and a life of McDonald's Pies and Big Gulps. Books rely on far more investment in original, cohesive thought to be successful, but by definition originality and cohesion cannot be found in the blue haze's formulaic seas.

Television's appeal lies in its lack of rhetoric, in its insistence on feelings and its control of them. I'll say that again: TV disdains rhetoric, it speaks in pure emotion. Why else would Fonzi be a common household name today if not for his patterned nostalgia? Or, why on hulu.com is the Family Guy consistently in the top five, if not for its rapidfire demands for laughter? Each and every sitcom, drama, or comedy on TV succeeds to some extent by capitalizing on our feelings, and the more successful each becomes in the weekly ratings, the harder it is to quantify or atomize into distinct parts. Which in turn leads to a national feeling of déjà vu, for we've all felt these feelings before, so TV becomes roundly criticized as nonsensical, repetitive dreck.

These criticisms turn out empty though, precisely because they are searching for gerunds in an idiom that TV cannot speak. We may not know TV's precise point at any given time, but hot damn, we sure as hell can feel it.

Which brings us to Gov. Palin, specifically to her shining moment in the debates, and her feckless and inconsiderate use of the English language:

Say it ain't so, Joe, there you go again pointing backwards again. You preferenced your whole comment with the Bush administration.

Unless Gov. Palin meant to attack Biden with the securities trading term "preference," a sting to obtuse for basically anyone to pick up on, these sentences might as well be gibberish. But, see, what they convey or feel, is a hope for the future, "forgive those who trespass." And she continues:

Now doggone it, let's look ahead and tell Americans what we have to plan to do for them in the future. You mentioned education and I'm glad that you did. I know education you are passionate about with your wife being a teacher for 30 years, and god bless her. Her reward is in heaven, right?

Palin's jump to that last sentence exposes a way of thinking that rarely pauses for clarity (wait did she just threaten Biden's wife?), but instead barrels through points for effect (she's a fan of teachers!). TV's basic formula plays well under these conditions; if a scene doesn't work it is cut with little to no concern for narrative cohesion. What matters in both instances is the impact of what's felt (God exists, He's on our side, He wants us to win), what's said is hardly the point. Tally ho:

I say, too, with education, America needs to be putting a lot more focus on that and our schools have got to be really ramped up in terms of the funding that they are deserving. Teachers needed to be paid more. I come from a house full of school teachers. My grandma was, my dad who is in the audience today, he's a schoolteacher, had been for many years. My brother, who I think is the best schoolteacher in the year, and here's a shout-out to all those third graders at Gladys Wood Elementary School, you get extra credit for watching the debate.

And so, her painful paragraph ends with the most heartfelt bunch of feeling a politician can hope for, a family with kids, under God. Palin goes ones step further and emotes into existence a room full of concentrating young Americans, real Americans. Ones she can feel for, the nation follows along, and that's terrifying.

Friday, October 10, 2008

What is Kansas For?

Anyone?

Have a Looksy: the Fed Rate.

A head scratcher at the time, but ponder this:

"While there are many policy considerations that arise as a consequence of the rapidly expanding global financial system, the most important is the necessity of maintaining stability in the prices of goods and services and confidence in domestic financial markets," he said. "Failure to do so is apt to exact far greater consequences as a result of cross-border capital movements than those which might have prevailed a generation ago."(1995-Doubts Voiced By Greenspan On a Rate Cut)

While you stare at this (click to enlarge):

See that blip between 1985 and 1990 that's the S&L crisis, which caused 700 of those shops to close. But you can see the point I'm trying to make here, starting in 1995 the slope of the Down Jones industrial average starts accelerating. That is the change between 2 points on that graph is less than the next 2 points, until about 2005, but then the slope starts accelerating again.

That's what a bubble looks like, but how does Greenspan factor in here? First a word about what his job was. The fed controls the federal funds rate which sets the interest rate for funds banks can lend to each other. The fed sets this rate by requiring banks to have a certain amount of cash reserves at the fed in the form of Government securities -- which are basically numbers on a balances sheet that the government says are worth what it says. If, after the closing bell, Bank A doesn't have enough reserves it must find another Bank willing to lend money to it so it can bolster its government securities holdings. By controlling the supply of these securities, the Government effectively controls the target rate of these loans. Keynes dictated that when times are tough and economic activity is low the Fed buys a whole bunch of these securities from banks and the banks can then throw that money around. This raises inflation a bit but also opens the sphincters on Wall Street and releases a flow of trading, which, hopefully busies up the economy. When times are chill the fed is supposed to start selling these securities to banks which raises the fed funds rate.1

All of which can make you a bit batty to think about: rather than just saying the rate is x and holding banks to it, the Fed pilots the boat by effectively locking the tiller and trying to control the wind. Greenspan and Milton Friedman's Neo-Classical nabobs at the fed in 1995, though, were all like "fucks to that, we care about inflation first and foremost, not controlling growth in a cyclical way," and set the federal funds rate at a stable level. Now, pause for a second, Keynesian economics offers a pretty straightforward way to predict what the rate's going to be at any point in time. If the economy's bad (and inflation's under control) it's safe to say it will be pretty low, and if the economy's alright it's safe to say that the rate will be relatively high. Ideally, in this system the rate is predictable, and banks like predictability, because it gives them a base income, and therefore a base to plan all their other bets around. This is called hedging, and for us nerds gives a root for "Hedging your bets".

If the fed funds rate is stable, however, and there is no way of knowing whether or not it will change, banks will lose their collective shit and start looking for safer bets to bolster their base. And out of Greenspan's backwards diction:

"While there are many policy considerations that arise as a consequence of the rapidly expanding global financial system, the most important is the necessity of maintaining stability in the prices of goods and services and confidence in domestic financial markets"

We start to see what he was thinking. Basically he removed a stable bet and forced banks to invest outside of Government -- on top of it all, the dude absolutely hated economic models and formulae -- by inserting a healthy goddamn dose of randomness and whimsy into a historically predictable vehicle. Here we go:

See 1994 to about 2001? Flat. So where do banks look? What has been, historically a pretty solid bet? What changes rates basically inline with the economy, the way the fed funds rate is supposed to? Ummm:

And, goodbye empire.


1. I may be wrong about all this. I received a C+ in economics 101 in college. Not bad for the librul arts! Return.

For more reading about further economic fantods see: