Saturday, October 30, 2010

Blood Simple: Perps

It’s hard to track someone who is not in the system, someone with no priors. If they haven’t been fingerprinted, there’s no way of making an ID at the crime scene. Once you’ve got a rap sheet, things are easier, even if the perp has no permanent place of residence and just hangs out. Chronic criminal behavior is viral, so if a detective is trying to nab someone for one crime, he can just wait for him to be apprehended for another. An I-card is produced, and as he is being arraigned for the second offense, the perp can be rearrested if he is not remanded. The subject in question had been picked up for trespassing in the 4-1, or forty-first precinct, the Fort Apache of cinema fame, which was once an urban form of the wild west, when New York, and particularly the South Bronx, was wide open back in the eighties. Now it’s still a tough neighborhood where teenagers in hoodies, sweat pants and heavy boots scurry between narrow doorways. The perp was being held on the trespassing charge at the Bronx Criminal Court house on 161st Street, but he was also being sought for assaulting his girlfriend. The court looks like the set of a television police procedural. There are clusters of court officers and an attractive Hispanic female judge, who in fact looks like an actress whose name you can’t quite remember. The public defenders arrive with thick legal files under their arms and four or five young ADAs, including an Orthodox Jew, are already processing varying cases, which all have docket numbers. Once the proceedings begin, the accused are led in, handcuffed, from a side entrance, like they’re coming on from the wings of an off-Broadway stage. A young woman is charged with assaulting her boyfriend, but she has also filed a complementary complaint against him. Orders of protection are the issue. The judge’s voice pipes up in a refrain that will be heard throughout the morning: “You understand that you will not contact him by cell phone, by email, by S-mail, or by Googling him, even if he indicates that he wants to contact you. You understand that you are being released subject to your understanding of this order of protection and that your discharge will be revoked if you violate this order of protection.” There is an appearance of studiousness amongst all the players that verges on goodwill, but there is a countervailing glazed-over look amongst the defendants, prosecutors and even family members who fill the pews. Everyone has seen it all before. It’s an ongoing drama that replays itself everyday like the old soaps. As four young men are brought before the judge, two burly court officers line up in back. Defendants are known to flee even in handcuffs.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fuck You!

You can say something is bullshit, which means it is as worthless as the feces of bull, but how did fucking become an adjective? Fucking, as we all know, began its life as a gerund, referring to the act of sexual intercourse. It then evolved into a modifier, as in the case of a woman on 23rd Street the other day who was overheard angrily saying, “You take the fucking car.” But how did the adjectival form of the noun come to take on the same connotation as the imperative of the verb, as in “fuck you”? Now, “fuck you” means you will get fucked, which is basically a nice idea, unless fuck in some way implies that in being fucked rather than doing the fucking you are getting the lesser end of the deal, as in Philip Larkin’s famous line, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” For instance, people who feel they have been taken advantage of frequently refer to themselves as “being fucked in the ass.” But there are lots of people, male and female, who enjoy being buggered—at least an equal number (if not more) than those who enjoy doing the buggering. It all doesn’t make a helluva lot of sense, but there is no mystery to language. Idioms tell us something, and the message in “fucking,” “fuck you” and “fucked in the ass” is that there is something about a normally pleasant experience that is not pleasant. This negative association seems to derive from the folksy and now anachronistic notion that it is better to be the giver than the receiver, better to penetrate than be the one who is penetrated. But passivity and vulnerability, as we all must realize at some point, are highly successful ways of gaining knowledge.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


Quiddity refers to the whatness of things, and it is precisely this whatness that is lost as we advance ever further into technological bridge building. In his famous graveside speech, Hamlet says, “Where be his quiddities now, his quillets, his cases, his tenures?” referring to a departed lawyer. Cybernetics allows for an increase in efficiency at the price of progress. This is not to suggest that everyone must do the Boston AIDS ride to get a feeling for the distance that is lost when traveling by plane or car. Arguing for purity is like chasing windmills, but there are qualitative things that can be done to improve one’s relationship to the world of objects. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx argued that the means of production resulted in the worker’s alienation from the world of things. The automobile production line epitomizes the kind of anomie in which workers are chronically estranged from the products they produce, but in modern life, more and more conveniences make it ever more difficult to actually have a hands-on relationship with anything. We push too many buttons. For instance, a new service called Doodle allows people to effectively coordinate group activities through an online calendar. It sets up future human interactions by surgically triaging all its clients before presenting a neat little diagram of availability. Seems innocuous enough, right? But it’s not. Such applications prevent all the usual grousing, bickering and love-hate that accompanies human congregation. It’s proven that even animals need others animals, and of all mammals Homo sapiens are perhaps most defined by their social needs. However, with the advent of cyber universes like Second Life, humans may no longer even have to have first-hand contact to arrange social events. Their avatars will Doodle via Google.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Diasporic Dining XIX: Bulimia for Idiots

The IHOP in Englewood Cliffs, NJ—the pancake special offering unlimited stacks for $4.99, assorted syrups including but not limited to maple, the rack of Smucker’s jellies, thick New England Clam chowder, the club sandwich sitting on a mountain of soggy fries—is a recipe for vomiting, a paradise for bulimics who don’t even have to bother putting their fingers down their throats. Add to this a discussion of Chuck Palahniuk’s "Guts," a gastrointestinal story if there ever was one, and you have the perfect setting for literary deconstruction, or, in medical terms, triage. In the intimacy occasioned by the overcrowded seating area, the text becomes the menu, in which the very ingredients that create our sense of good and bad, right and wrong, sacred and profane, Levi-Strauss’s “raw and cooked,” come into question. Fast food restaurant chains like IHOP, Denny’s, and naturally Burger King, Wendy’s and McDonald’s are much maligned because of the poisonous nature of the food. But few realize the value they serve as metaphoric Petrie dishes for the process of ingestion and regurgitation. The presuppositions of culture coalesce in a windswept parking lot, with the harsh but inviting white light and the cheerily uniformed servers with their mechanized first-person-plural responses. Here, like in the Large Hadron Collider, the initial conditions of longing for what anxious Americans call comfort food are recreated, one day at a time.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Population on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

During the 1950s, “nervous breakdown” was the overall rubric under which a variety of behaviors and conditions were catalouged. High powered advertising executives of the kind portrayed in the popular television series Mad Men had breakdowns due to the stress of their jobs, and were sent away to sanitariums like the famed Austen Riggs in Stockbridge (if they could afford it). In those days, the tranquillizer of choice was Miltown, which then gave rise to Librium and Valium. The protagonist of A Stop at Willoughby, the famed Twilight Zone episode about a harried ad executive who slips into an escape hatch from the prison of his high-pressure existence, is the prototypical nervous breakdown sufferer, but his psychic break transports him into a fantasy of a euphoric, carefree world which turns out to be death. You don’t hear about nervous breakdowns much anymore. Today, the diagnosis that is increasingly being provided for a variety of behaviors is bipolar disorder. What are we to make of this? Were those suffering from bipolar disorder merely ignored, in the same way that the learning disorders ADD and dyslexia were long overlooked or misunderstood, or were those afflicted with nervous breakdowns really suffering from bipolar disorder? Sometimes the changes in labels are the result of the DSM IV, which lists and categorizes conditions, and which recently broadened the category for autism to such an extent that Asberger’s no longer stands alone as a diagnostic category. And then there are the ailments that seem to come and go, like the women who talk of Michelangelo in “Prufrock.” One of these is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a malady that appeared to be more ubiquitous in the ‘90s than it is today, despite the fact that no vaccine was ever developed to prevent it from striking. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Trolley Problem

Philippa Foot, the English philosopher who put forth the Trolley Problem, recently died (“Philippa Foot, Renowned Philosopher, Dies at 90,” NYT, l0/9/10). The Trolley Problem is one of those conundrums like the Prisoner’s Dilemma that presents ethical decisions in a utilitarian context. In short, a run-away trolley is about to kill five track men, but can be diverted so that it will only kill one worker. What should the driver do? Clearly, by diverting the tram, the driver is playing God, deciding who shall live and who shall die. In addition, implicit in the seemingly rational decision to kill one man over five is the notion that life can be quantitatively valued. Surely five lives are worth more than one. But are they? The United States sentenced many of the inhabitants of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to horrible deaths in which they were literally incinerated in order to force a Japanese surrender. But this nuclear holocaust saved many lives. The firebombing of Dresden is a lesser example. Ironically, the U.S. implementation of similar tactics in later wars—napalming in Vietnam and massive air assaults, most recently in Iraq—proved to be far less successful. It’s as if the tram that mowed down the one track worker became a possessed evil spirit and returned to knock off the other five. However difficult these arguments become, underlying them is a belief in the power or reason, rationality and logic. Significantly, Foot, who was the granddaughter of Grover Cleveland, was an activist and obviously a believer in the possibility of making decisions for the Greater Good, as evidenced in her having helped to create Oxfam.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Blood Simple: Sam Sleeps

In the annals of pathological behavior, the case of Col. David Russell Williams, the high-ranking Canadian air force pilot run amok, must rank high. Williams’s crime spree started with breaking and entering houses of young girls to steal their underwear, and ended in several grisly murders involving battery and asphyxiation. He recorded most if not all of his exploits and saved them as computer files (“Top Canadian Commander Pleads Guilty to Murders,” NYT, 10/18/10). Without playing amateur sleuth or psychoanalyst, one would have to conclude that Colonel Williams wanted to be caught. Another salient feature of the crime spree was that it was characterized by a continuing escalation, in which the equivalent of a high school prank evolves into fetishism, masturbation, and finally acts of assault, starting with stripping and blindfolding his victims and culminating in two acts of murder. Bank robbers and other criminals often go on sprees, but it’s unclear if their adventures are characterized by continually upping the ante, with more daredevil-type robberies of ever larger and seemingly well defended institutions. Also, it seems rare that felons wish to be caught. Thus, Williams’s pathology is distinctive in its evolutionary and self-defeating character. Williams was not the classic criminal who simply sets out to get the things he can’t have. In fact, one would think that a high-level pilot of his type would be a sex symbol to certain women, which makes his bevy of transgressions all the more puzzling. His persona would hardly seem to be that of the retiring misfit who would be unattractive to women. Indeed, if he had wanted to engineer it, he probably could have found willing partners in debauchery. What was driving this latter day Jack the Ripper? Was he hearing voices like the famed Son of Sam, David Berkowitz? How does he compare to Hayes and Komisarjevsky, the two criminals recently involved in the grisly Petit murders? Were drugs involved? And how is such behavior defined? Is Williams, who led a double life as criminal on one hand and as husband and family man (who golfed with his wife) on the other, insane, by legal definitions of the word?  In the lifetime of incarceration that undoubtedly awaits him, authorities and mental health professionals will have a unique opportunity to explore the subterfuges of one of the more extreme examples of criminal pathology.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Drive Theory

The fuel tank is like the libido, the accelerator the ego, and the superego the brakes. The carburetor, which essentially turns fuel into energy, might pass for sublimation. This is the essence of what is known as drive theory, both in automotive repair and psychoanalysis. Looked at more globally, the car is the body and the driver is the brain. Using these analogies, what can we say about the Gulf oil spill, about the fact that the biggest market for American cars may be China, about the fact that a car that once had a sterling reputation for dependability—the Toyota—turned out to be the equivalent of a mad rapist, with its accelerator pedal stuck to the floor? And what about Chevrolet, which refuses to be called Chevy? Does that remind you of a girl in college named Frances who spent a semester abroad and came back as Françoise. And what about the hybrids, which reduce fuel consumption by relying on electricity, the way men get their charge from Viagra? And what about cruise control? Where does that fit into the picture? And what is the significance of the popular radio show Car Talk, which is today’s Dr. Ruth? People used to want to hear about orgasm and erection and now they’d rather talk about spark plugs and miles-per-gallon. The car has lost its fins; there are no eccentric old Edsels, De Sotos, or god-like old Mercuries parked at the drive-in. The Saturn retains a mythological name, but lacks mystique, and the DeLorean went back to the future. The Escalade has replaced the old Caddy, and yet, when it comes down to it, there’s still nothing to compete with a new set of wheels.

Monday, October 18, 2010


The Cadillac Escalade is what the Mercedes was in another era. It’s become the car of choice amongst the same conspicuous consumers who once made the Lincoln Town Car, the Cadillac Seville, the Beemer and the Mercedes 450 symbols of a certain kind of status. Accumulate a certain level of wealth and you can own or lease an Escalade, and when you have an Escalade and a driver you are perceived as having arrived. Ownership of the Escalade doesn’t indicate you are a Warren Buffet, a Bill Gates or one of the mysterious hedge-fund types like Steven Cohen, but it serves as a kind of Maginot line. It’s not that you have one that’s important, but rather what it means when you don’t. There are other status symbols that are commonly flaunted—the black American express card and the Rolex watch—but the Escalade has become ubiquitous in the murky area that we call upper-class life, because the owner of an Escalade may be anywhere from modestly to vastly wealthy, and the vast disparities of wealth in modern American society are such that the difference can be fairly dramatic. But, as an item, what does the Escalade tell us about the times in which we live? The Mercedes was an object of great luxury that provided all kinds of creature comforts out of the reach to the owner of, say, a Ford Falcon. But the Escalade has none of the sexiness of a Beemer, the car that Pierce Brosnan drove in Golden Eye. Most luxury Escalades are black, like the classic Mercedes sedan with its black-suited driver, but the Escalade is far less svelte. It’s workmanlike. In some ways, it looks like a station wagon or a van, and until Escalades became status symbols, one didn’t even note that they were Caddies, so different were they from the famed tail-finned objects of the fifties and sixties. Owners of Escalades want to be in the club that will have them as a member; at the same time the club has changed from heathens who flaunt their wealth to being composed of the entitled whose accumulation is the result of hard work. Escalade owners seek safety (the vehicles are built like tanks), security and a certain anonymity that reflects society’s current ambivalence towards those who have money.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Radical Invention

The Matisse Show at MOMA is subtitled “Radical Invention” and deals with the period after the painter’s return from Morocco to Paris in 1913 and before his leaving Paris for Nice in 1917. But one of the most significant paintings in the show, Still Life After Jan Davidsz de Heem’s "La Desserte," is based, as the title suggests, on a previous painting, which dates from 1640 and was rediscovered in 1893. Matisse had studied with Moreau, who encouraged him to copy the old masters. The proto-Cubist piece exhibits the confidence and originality that would be epitomized in Bathers by the River (l909-17), The Moroccans (1916) and The Piano Lesson (1916), where a shadow on the painter’s son’s face is represented by a triangle of darkness, shows the artist’s debt to the past. Two floors up, MOMA pays homage to the very movement the museum played such an important role in encouraging, in a show that seems to hearken back to Claudi Levi Strauss’s famous dichotomy between bricoleurs and ingénieurs (or inventors), highlighting the notion that the New York school really was the home of a radical break with Europe and the past. New Yorker art critic Harold Rosenberg pressed this point with his famous distinction between Coonskins and Redcoats, as he referred to American modernists and their European counterparts. But can one imagine Franz Kline without Velasquez? Pollock, Rothko, Newman, and de Kooning all have their separate rooms or walls. William Rubin refers to Arshile Gorky as “The Godfather” of the movement, and de Kooning is quoted as saying “flesh is the reason why paint was invented” on a wall plaque next to his angry rather than enigmatic Mona Lisa, Woman 1 (1950-2). The abstractionist photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind are represented, as are the lesser known Grace Hartigan (Shinnecock Canal) and Joan Mitchell (Ladybug), along with Nevelson, Frankenthaler, Gottlieb (with his famous exploding red balls), Clyfford Still and Sam Francis. But let’s take two early Pollocks, The Flame (1934-8) and the Mask (1941), which have the mythic quality of a Picasso or even a Georgia O’Keefe. There’s something comfortable about a long-term relationship with its routines and its rituals, and in this case the subject is the artist’s relationship with his work. By the time Pollock paints Gothic (1944), the image is already being lost, and by 1946, in Shimmering Substance, the drip style has come into being. Large canvases like One: November 31, 1950 and the famed Autumn Rhythm, which hangs in the permanent collection of the Met, are the embodiment of the classic action painting depicted in Hans Namuth’s famous film of the artist at work. What is dramatic, however, is not the break with the past, but the constant nostalgia that even pulls at an artist as revolutionary as Pollock. In Echo: November 15, 1951, Pollock is already returning to the image. Images are the way that memory is conveyed. The picture of Pollock on the cover of Life, like the picture of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, may have augured the artistic version of the idea put forth forty years later in Francis Fukayama’s The End of History and the Last Man, i.e., that the past is coming to an end. But the revolutionary innuendo is misleading. If there is one thing that the current show at MOMA demonstrates, it’s the fact that art is fundamentally more conservative than science, carrying as it does the burden of history. Abstract Expressionism was ultimately not as revolutionary an event as nuclear fusion. The past is evidenced in every brushstroke of the works on display in MOMA’s comprehensive homage.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

When Down Under is Not Australia

Chile is crocking up to be the destination of choice for those who want to be rescued. Already, several of the big discount travel companies, along with some of the more upscale packagers who book trips to exotic locales like Borneo, are ramping up for the expected influx of tourists who want to go through the experience of being buried alive and removed from their underground prison through a tube. The attraction of such adventures, like the old Mt. Everest treks that created so much attention in the past, is that immersion in a near-death travel experience creates international celebrity. The Times reported that the diarist of the trapped miners will undoubtedly have a career as a writer, and the lone Bolivian was offered a new position by his country’s president Evo Morales (which the Times reported he had already rejected). Still another of the miners apparently walked into the arms of his mistress rather than his wife, undoubtedly making him a candidate as a heartthrob on the Chilean soaps. One of the problems that travel companies are wrestling with is exactly how to pull off the entombment, now that a rescue template has already been created.  Will travelers be brought to places in Chile where the fault lines are more conducive to earthquakes? Will they be asked to sign up for jobs in mines that have either failed inspections or for which corrupt inspectors have been paid off to overlook potentially dangerous conditions? These and other details need to be worked out, but the next story about a Chilean mine rescue is more likely to appear in the Sunday travel section, under the headline “When Down Under is Not Australia,” rather than the front page, as the Chilean rescue saga did ("33 Miners Are Out, Defying Dire Predictions on Fitness and Spirit," NYT, 10/14/10).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Everybody Needs Somebody

Solomon Burke, the rhythm and blues legend, whose “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” became a Blues Brothers favorite, died on October 10th at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam (“Solomon Burke, Influential Soul Singer, Dies at 70,” NYT, l0/11/10). He was 70 and, as the Times reported in their half-page obit, which included a picture of the zaftig Burke, mike in hand, bedecked in jewels and flanked by a base player and guitarist, he had 21 children, 90 grandchildren and 19 great grand children. “I got lost on one of the bible verses that said, ‘be fruitful and multiply,’” the Times quoted him as saying. Though James Brown was known to most as the “Godfather of Soul,” Burke took his coronation by a DJ seriously and “often performed in full royal habit—crown, scepter and robe—and sat in a golden throne on stage.” Burke was not only an ordained minister, he was a mortician, the Times reported, which might explain the genesis of the song “Just Out of Reach (of My Two Open Arms).” Today, female stars of film and stage have lots of children, but they’re serial adopters. Could you imagine what Angelina Jolie’s figure would look like if she’d mothered 19 children with Brad Pitt? And when it comes to royalty, the distaff are again outdoing the men, Lady Gaga being the latest example of self-anointed rock nobility. In any case, the Times obit was a royal send off for a spirit who was creative and pro-creative at the same time.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Down These Mean Streets

Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Piri Thomas’s Down These Mean Streets, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, Richard Price’s The Wanderers and Ray Ashley’s classic Little Fugitive, the 1953 film about a kid running away from a crime he didn’t commit to the haunted amusement park that Ferlinghetti might have been thinking about when he wrote A Coney Island of the Mindthese memoirs and fictions all capture a moment of urban experience before ghettos were the victims of gentrification. The period is roughly bracketed between Rosa Parks’s refusal to go to the back of the bus in ’55 and Richard Nixon’s resignation in ’74. Now, with the exception of the outer boroughs, the El trains, and the teeming open markets underneath them, are almost entirely gone, as is the attendant despair, which could suck the air out of a room. Beer was a nickel a glass and everyone smoked and you didn’t have to go to the Brooklyn Fox to find lipstick on your collar. The Drifters’s Under the Boardwalk and Up on the Roof were documentaries in song. Trash cans were turned over to mark stick ball fields, and naked children ran through uncorked fire hydrants as the sound of hydraulic drills opening up some distant street competed with the Doppler screams of sirens and the fog horns of tankers, while the smell of Tasty Bread drifted across the East River. Cool Jerk was the hot 45 in the summer of  ’66, and the Four Seasons sang about late December, ‘63—Oh What a Night. 

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Horn of Plenty

The automat was the precursor to the peep show. At Horn and Hardart’s, hot dogs nestled in baked beans and casseroles of macaroni and cheese vied for our attention the way naked girls and guys would a decade later. Curiously, both just required quarters, though the automat also offered a nickel cup of coffee. Peep-a-Live on the west side of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street had a turntable on which spread-eagled girls spun, much like dessert turntables on which cakes and pies revolve in most diners. The automat, like the peep show, was a place to go for people who had nowhere to go, and both offered anonymity in that they did away with intermediaries. To this extent, both experiences furnished the kind of solitude sought after by the chronic masturbator, who wants to be in a position where he can indulge his fantasies without having to interact with humanity. The peep show booths did have phones, but hardly any models (or patrons)—except the notorious dominatrix who worked in the peep show opposite Citicorp Center and smashed her hand against the plexiglass window—used the few that worked. Even though the peep show resembled a confessional, it was the last place you wanted to go to unburden yourself, particularly because the electronic shade that covered the window was designed to end conversation before it started. Both the automat and the peep show offered a little window into an inner sanctum that made the sights of forbidden nudity and the smells of food all the more desirable. Alas, with a few exceptions, automats and peepshows are a figment of New York’s colorful past. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Enter the Void

Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void pays homage to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, both in the prominent portrayal of drugs and an iconic toilet scene. Enter the Void is shot in the psychedelic style of films like Terry Giliam’s Brazil, but it has the mythopoeic breadth of Joseph Campbell. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown), the central character, takes a drug called DMT that mimics the feeling created by an enzyme the body shoots into the brain at the time of death. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which describes the moment of death as a replay of life, is cited just as Oscar meets his drug-induced maker, and the book’s prophecy plays out in handheld camera shots jerkily hovering over scenes from Oscar’s past—the gruesome death of his parents in a head-on collision (searingly repeated throughout the film), his sister Linda’s (Paz de la Huerta) abortion (including a graphically depicted fetus), and his witnessing, as a child, the primal scene of his parents fucking in the doggy position. In an anomalous twist, he even observes his own cremation. Oscar’s subjective mind is the doppelganger hanging over the movie, and it presents a curious paradox, since utter subjectivity is invoked to depict the death of the self. Noe’s early Irreversible achieved notoriety due to a graphically violent eight-minute rape sequence. Noe’s camera is equally unflinching in Enter the Void. In what must be a cinematic first, the penis is shown entering the vagina from the point of view of the vulva. However, despite the violence, drug addiction and pornography that constitute the director’s palette, Enter the Void is ultimately a family drama, albeit of a gruesome sort. Their parents’ death is the driving force in both Oscar's and Linda’s lives, and it’s what cements their incestuous bond. Unlike more traditional cinematic excursions into the territory of trauma, Enter the Void suffers from a lack of plot—maybe because of the director’s globally ambitious approach to his subject, which is life itself.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Money That's What I Want

The Protestant Ethic emphasizes grace. Thus, Max Weber wrote his famous tome, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. There are the saved and the damned, but grace is less the product of deeds than predestination. Of course, the paradox is that everyone works hard to join the elect, and so the cart is inadvertently put before the horse. Fortune in our society is often predicated on the notion of deferred pleasure, of thrift and probity. To this extent, the failure of the stimulus package can be looked at as an extension of the Protestant Ethic. As the Times recently reported, large corporations like Microsoft are able to borrow enormous amounts of money at extraordinarily low interest rates, but the extra borrowing is not creating jobs (“Cheap Debt for Corporations Fails to Spur Economy,” NYT, 10/3/10). The rich are getting richer, with many firms stockpiling cash and taking a wait-and-see attitude, while the have-nots who once financed the sub-prime mortgage boom are caught up in a catch-22 situation in which stimulus-supported banks are stockpiling cash while paying negligible interest rates to depositors. It’s a vicious cycle, with rumors of Stimulus II following the original much the way Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps takes up where the first film left off—in both cases with a similar cast lead characters. Stimulus II, if it comes to pass, would begin just as TARP, the troubled asset relief program that was enacted at the height of the meltdown, comes to an end. Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door to protest the selling of indulgences, whereby those who sinned could purchase relief. But perhaps the authors of a new stimulus package should consider the pardon model. For instance, some sinners whose homes had been foreclosed are about to receive relief because of the widespread impropriety of much of the paperwork that accompanied foreclosure notices, including improper notarization (“The Gathering Storm Over Foreclosures,” NYT, l0/4/10). The result is that the housing market may finally find a bottom from which the only direction is up. The belief in reason is also another characteristic of the Protestant Ethic, but sometimes, good things come in unlikely and ultimately irrational-seeming packages.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bedbugs, then Stuxnets

The Stuxnet computer worm appears to have been engendered to disable centrifuges of the kind that are used to enrich Uranium. Thus, whoever created this potent piece of cyber espionage was able to cripple many of the products made by Siemens, the German manufacturer whose technology is used in the production of such equipment. Cyber warfare is crocking up to be one of the most potent forms of combat, to the extent that it has the potential to disable modern societies, which depend on computer programs to function smoothly. Facebook has over 500,000,000 members—can you imagine what would happen if a worm were invented that knocked out the faces and the friending capacity of the service? Facebook employees, and users, would have to figure out something else to do with their time, and Mark Zuckerberg’s holdings and net worth would become as meager as they are private. Yes, it’s a grand idea that Stuxnet may have slowed down the Uranium enrichment process in Natanz, or whatever secret location the Iranians are using, but what if the worm turns out to be like the bedbug epidemic that’s afflicting parts of New York City? There are Luddites like the Unibomber who will be content to roast coyotes in little shacks in the vast Northwest wilderness, but the rest of us are wired de facto and de jure into social networks that have replaced the nuclear family. The virus that’s capable of defusing Iranian nuclear capability may also have the potential to create chaos with the lingua franca of our culture, the Internet. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Forbidden City

When in Venice, you might go to the Cipriani. In London, the Connaught. In Paris, the George V or the Ritz. And on the Cote d’Azur, the Hotel du Cap. These are the old fashioned Grand Hotels, with quiet corridors, doting concierges, and soft, elegant sheets that were turned down by the night maid. When it was a seller’s market, you had to be landed aristocracy or at least know a landed aristocrat to make a reservation in some of these dignified redoubts. They were a far cry from the Holiday Inn, the Marriott or even the Meridien. These hotels were more like clubs and had a certain cachet. The closest most travelers would come to one of these pleasure domes came from reading about them in the pages of a novel. Writers like Evelyn Waugh, Hemingway and Graham Greene might have been found at their bars, documenting the foibles of the upper crust as they recorded the cultural history of the age. However, let’s say one wins the lottery or has the uncanny good fortune to invest in Apple at the right time and, for a moment at least, becomes the kind of cash cow that needs to be milked. There generally is no more reliable place to empty one’s pockets than a grand old establishment like the Cipriani, facing the Lido, the beach where Ashenbach confronted his homosexual longings in the Mann novella. But, will the uprooted cosmopolitan of the 21st Century really find respite in these museums, in which the aristocracy of Europe, probably including several itinerant Romanov’s, experienced its death rattles? Indeed, these anachronisms have a clientele that differs greatly from the world they entertained in the past. It’s a little like entering the Forbidden City in Peking. The experience of the tourist is nothing like what it was like when the inner sanctum was really off limits to anyone but emperors.