Thursday, February 26, 2009

Photos of the Fallen

The Pentagon has reversed its policy of prohibiting the taking of photographs of coffins returning to Dover Air Force Base from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is not surprising; the debate over the propriety of allowing photographs to be taken was reopened when Obama took office. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that he was "never comfortable" with the ban. The decision whether or not to allow photographs of individual coffins will be made in consultation with the families, who will have veto power. That's entirely appropriate.

I'm in favor of this change in policy. If I were in one of those coffins, I would want my sacrifice recorded for posterity.

HSX: Week of February 27, 2009

I'm not sure I even want to think about the openers this week, let alone see them. Looks like the big hit of the weekend will the Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience (JBC3D). I've heard that Malia Obama is a huge fan of the Jonas Brothers, which is perfectly normal for a 10-year old little girl. Not being one, and not having daily or even weekly contact with one, I have no interest. But I'm sure it will be a great experience for these girls and their parents. The stock is at H$86, a new high, which predicts about a $29 million opening weekend. HSX set the strike price for the options at H$20, which now looks low. I apparently missed buying the options last week, so I had to pay about H$8 for the call. I don't think I've ever done that. Put is, of course, underwater.
Stock: Long
Call: Long
Put: Short

At the other end of the pop culture spectrum is Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (STRFT), based on a video game. This isn't just at the opposite end of the pop culture spectrum; it's also at the end of the financial expectations spectrum. The stock is trading around H$16, down from a high of H$42. Wow. Nothing says "bomb" like a stock that has lost more than half its value. About the only interesting thing I can find about this movie is that it stars an actress named "Moon Bloodgood," which is one of the best names for an actress I have ever heard. HSX set the strike price for this at H$15, back when that was presumably a reasonable expectation, say, three weeks ago. I don't think I have ever seen a stock price so close to the strike price. The price of the stock is based on the box office gross after four weeks, while the strike price is based on the box office gross of the opening weekend. Stock price: four weeks. Strike price: three days. Those two really should be very different. The strike price should be about a third of the stock price. Not this time. The call is trading about as low as possible, while the put is about H$6, which is absurd for a strike price of H$15. Looks like this will be a good weekend for people who are giving up cheesy action movies for Lent.
Stock: Short
Call: Short as the director's career
Put: Long

Update Tuesday afternoon: Well, that was a spectacular miscalculation. Apparently the Jonas Brothers are not as popular as all that. Did I say look for a $29 million opening weekend? I'm sorry, cut that in half, and then cut it some more - they took in around $12.7 million. My big mistake was not checking the screen counts. BIG mistake. The screencount was about 1,200. That's not a big release. With that many screens, they would have need a per-screen average (PSA) of about $24,000, which is almost unheard of for a release like this. They still managed a PSA of better than $9,00, which is perfectly respectable. If they had rolled this out on 3,000 screens, that $9,000 PSA would have resulted in an opening weekend of $29 million or so. Let this be a lesson to us all: check the screencount.

One reason this is important is that it indicates how much money the studio is willing to put behind the release. A print costs about $2,000. So the difference between 1,200 prints and 3,000 prints is close to $4 million. That's a large chunk of change. On the other hand, Hannah Montana's movie, the closest comparison, had an even smaller rollout, less than 700 theaters, and raked in $31 million. Not quite sure what that says about the tastes of teenage girls - maybe they're more interested in role models than crushes.

The other release, Streetfighter, bombed as expected. It brought in $4.65 million, way, way below that $15 strike price. So at least I got that one right.

Justifying the Humanities

The New York Times has an article about how the current economic crisis is causing problems in higher education, particularly for the humanities. I've been wondering about this. I have a degree in philosophy from an elite liberal arts college, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about the economic value of a degree in the humanities.

A traditional justification of the humanities is that it enlightens students, provides them with greater insight into the human condition, and thereby inspires them to be better people. I agree with this somewhat, but I also think it's usually overstated and overblown as a justification for the higher expense of a liberal arts degree. I've known great people who had technical degrees (like my Dad) and flaky idiots from elite liberal colleges.

My problems with the humanities have little to do with the humanities themselves, and just about everything to do with how they are taught. I loved reading Keats and Joyce. But when I graduated, I was emotionally burned out, and basically incapable of looking for a job.

I'm going to concentrate on humanities as they are taught at dedicated liberals arts colleges, because I went to one (Swarthmore). I also attended film school as a grad student at the University of Southern California, although I don't have a degree.

For me, the difference between a liberal arts college and a more technically-focused school like film school is simple:

Swarthmore taught me how to think. But USC taught me how to be competent.

Each of those is important. But without the other, each also has severe limitations. For me, Swarthmore was ridiculously unbalanced - there was no effort to teach me how to be competent. I was one of the most politically active people on a very politically active campus: I ran Amnesty International while I was there, and had two internships in Washington. But I had a grand total of one conversation about my activism with a professor while I was there, and that was about a parking ticket.

USC, on the other hand, had both elements of a technical school and a liberal arts college; we were required to take classes in screenwriting and critical studies as well as editing and cinematography. In film school, even the technical skills have a humanist purpose; the best lighting in the world is useless unless it helps tell the story.

Part of the problem with the liberal arts is that professors have absolutely no incentive to help students learn anything other than the subject matters that they teach, and they have very little incentive to change that. And they have tenure, so they have very little reason to change.

Part of my problem is that I got lost asking the "big questions." I kept looking for the "meaning of life," completely ignoring the fact that I had to actually figure out how to live my life before I could ask questions about meaning. In retrospect, I took a class in Plato that was not the best use of my time; I probably would have benefited from taking a class in accounting instead. Or Photoshop, although I'm not sure Photoshop had been invented then.

There are many ways that liberal arts colleges can adapt to the 21st century that would enhance their ability to educate their students without corrupting their mission. There are now a fair number of technologies that require the manipulation of information, which means thinking. Learning how to set up formulas in Excel also teaches math. Working with Photoshop or Illustrator or even PowerPoint is a way of learning about how the visual presentation of information works.

Most of my education consisted of reading books, which means, in the most basic sense, starting at black lines on a white page. Text is an extremely precise method for transferring information. I'm using it right now. But it can also be extremely inefficient. There's a reason a picture is worth a thousand words. Consider a copy of Hamlet in book form. If it were converted to a text format on a computer, like Microsoft Word, it might be a few megabytes in size. Now consider Hamlet as a movie. It's probably on a DVD, and several gigabytes in size. The movie is literally hundreds, if not thousands, of times larger than the text file. Measured digitally, there is literally hundreds of times more information in the movie.

Now consider the process of physically engaging the material. When a student reads Hamlet in book form, there are two minds at work: the student's, and Shakespeare's. But when a student watches a movie (or a play, as Shakespeare intended), there are many, possibly hundreds, of minds at work: all the actors, the director, all the craftspeople.

One great adaptation that would be most helpful would be for liberal arts colleges to end their love affair with books. End the tyranny of text. I love books. I have many books. I read books constantly. I read newspapers and magazines constantly; at one point in my life I had 26 periodical subscriptions. At one point I had something like 4,000 books. I had to sell them, and, honestly, I don't miss having that many.

In the most basic sense, liberal arts colleges are in the business of processing, storing, and transferring information. For many years, those were difficult to do. That's one reason colleges and universities all have large libraries.

But processing, storing, and transferring information are all being radically transformed, and organizations that do not adapt to the new realities are in danger.

Just ask anyone in the newspaper business.

Oscar blogging - a little late

So the Oscars happened last Sunday. I watched them in a pizzeria in Silver Lake. This post is a little delayed - I took a couple of days off of blogging. Sorry!

I was, of course, thrilled that Slumdog Millionaire won just about everything it could. I read a few comments that this reflected the increasing "globalization" of Hollywood. I actually disagree, but only about the degree, not the kind, of "globalization." Hollywood has had a global reach since its very early days. There have always been people from other countries working in Hollywood, and Hollywood has always made movies about other countries. Greta Garbo was Swedish. Some of our finest directors have been from other countries -Hitchcock, Billy Wilder. Heck, most of our monsters - Godzilla, Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong - are from outside the US. Even some movies that seem very "American" can be mostly foreign. Titanic, for example, is a classic American blockbuster. But the director, James Cameron, is from Canada, the Titanic was a British ship, it sank in the North Atlantic, Kate Winslet is British, and the movie was mostly shot in Mexico. Slumdog Millionaire just extended a decades-long process to another country. Some argue that this leads to homogenization. I think that's nonsense. Just look at the list of movies nominated for Best Picture. They're incredibly diverse. To say nothing of all the nominated movies in all categories. An awards ceremony with both "Hellboy II" (Makeup) and "The Duchess" (Costume Design) has a very broad reach.

I liked Hugh Jackman as a host, particularly the fact that he was very upbeat and excited. I like Jon Stewart, but I think I prefer Hugh Jackman's style for hosting the Oscars. It was refreshing not to have any snark or sarcasm, even though I love those when I watch The Daily Show. I thot his homage to the musical was fun, but didn't quite work - it had nothing to do with this year's Oscars (Beyonce, of course, was great). Speaking of musical numbers, combining the songs for Slumdog Millionaire with the other nominated song was interesting, but next year I would like to see all the nominated songs. Seeing the orchestra playing the nominated scores was cool, but the scores all seemed to blend together. I was watching them with a musician, and he explained that they just take the themes from the scores (or something like that), and that he would have preferred to hear the actual soundtracks. I concur.

I loved how they had one or two presenters give multiple awards, like production design and costume design. Good call. That really sped things up, which was great. I was also very happy that they dropped the idea of having the winners of lesser-known categories accept their awards from the audience. I thot that was tacky.

Having previous winners pay homage to this year's acting nominees seemed a little much. It was great to see people like Robert De Niro and Sophia Loren, but it got a little sentimental. These people have been nominated for Oscars - do they really need more adulation? I also don't like the fact that they don't do this for the other categories - do actors and actresses really need yet more attention than the below-the-line talent? But other people that I have talked to, particularly women, have been very positive, so it worked for some people.

Ben Stiller's imitation of Joaquin Phoenix was funny, but it detracted a little from the actual award (I think it was cinematography), and if you weren't aware of the reference, it probably seemed weird. The Oscars do have a worldwide audience, and not everyone watches Letterman. Natalie Portman, however, played her part well.

Tina Fey and Steve Martin were perfect. Gotta love them. The montages of action, comedy, and romance movies were all well done. Loved James Franco responding to his own performance in Milk. Queen Latifah singing while the montage of people who passed away was a very nice touch. I liked the multiple screens behind her, and was bummed we could only see one. Danny Boyle said that for the people in the theater, the show was great, and I believe him.

The camera work and the editing of the ceremony were very good.

The acceptance speeches were good to excellent, and mostly charming. Love Penelope Cruz and Kate Winslet, both great. Heath Ledger's family was very gracious. Sean Penn was funny and humble, not qualities normally associated with him. I was glad he won. Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker who walked across a wire stretched between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, was very funny. A coworker just watched "Man On Wire," the documentary that won the Oscar, and can't stop talking about it.

The dresses were almost uniformly gorgeous, with the exception of Reese Witherspoon's, which wasn't great. Anne Hathaway seems incapable of taking a bad picture or wearing anything less than a perfect dress.

Overall, a good night. The Oscars are constantly experimenting, and the Academy seems to be learning from experience. Here's hoping that next year's is even better.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Justifying The Oscars

Meghan Daum does not like the Oscars. She is also well aware that, in Los Angeles, this is not a popular topic. I can understand how she feels. I'm a big Lakers fan, but I can't stand the Dodgers, for which I am occasionally vilified in this town. However, my belief that the Dodgers are pathetic losers is usually justified when they fail miserably, which is a regular occurrence.

I like Meghan Daum, I even once went to a reading so I could hear her, and I even bought her book for her to autograph.

But I completely disagree with her about the Oscars, because she's totally wrong. She's obviously entitled to her opinion. But I have to disagree.

How many people genuinely care? Sure, they say they care. They enter the pools and watch the pre-event entertainment news shows and claim to have an opinion about one actor's performance versus another's. But do they really care, or do they just think they're supposed to care? Is watching the Oscars the best use of a Sunday evening, or is it an adult version of attending a high school pep rally for a football game, even if you neither fully understand the game nor give a hoot about the final score?
The answer is that they pretend to care because they really want to pretend, and sometimes they really do care. People make decisions, they identify with particular movies, they argue, they invest ego in their choices, and they make bets. Why? Partially because it's fun, but also partially because sometimes these choices do mean something to us. Some people think Steven Spielberg was shafted when Saving Private Ryan lost Best Picture to Shakespeare In Love, and will argue about it to this day. If you're a WWII veteran or are close to one, Saving Private Ryan may have been a deeply meaningful movie, while Shakespeare In Love was a romantic trifle. Lots of people were seriously disappointed that Crash won Best Picture. Some people think it was a crime when Pulp Fiction lost Best Picture to Forrest Gump. I still have no idea why Gosford Park won Best Original Screenplay.

But there's also a very LA-specific reason why people care about the Oscars. And by LA-specific, I mean entertainment-industry specific. Film, like most of the arts in this society, is constantly torn between art and commerce. Different people are involved in this business for different reasons. Some people want to make lots of money; some people believe in themselves as artists. There is an uneasy tension between the two that pervades the industry.

Except on Oscar night. On this night, it's all about art. Movies that made next to nothing compete with movies that made fortunes, and every one has an equal chance. Slumdog Millionaire violates all the rules for mainstream commercial success in Hollywood. It has no stars, the director isn't famous, and it takes place in a country most of us have never been to. And yet it is the front-runner for Best Picture, and it's practically minting money.

The Oscars are also about acceptance and reward of artistic excellence in an industry that has far more rejection than either acceptance or acknowledgement of great artistic ability.

Consider an average actress. Let's say she auditions once a week, and gets 2 gigs a year. That means that she is rejected about 50 times, and accepted twice. And one of those acceptances might be for a theater gig that pays next to nothing or a role in a student film that takes three days and pays nothing. Imagine going to 50 job interviews a year, and doing that for years. The same is true of most other professionals in this business. Writers collect rejection slips; producers work on projects for years that go nowhere. Shakespeare In Love was in development for 10 years. There are currently almost 1,400 movies on the Hollywood Stock Exchange. Many of those won't get made, and, of those that do, a fair amount will go straight to DVD. Of those that get released, a fair number will fail.

So for one night, art trumps commerce, and we all get to dream that maybe, someday, we will feel permanently accepted and acknowledged. It's fantasy, sure, but, then again, isn't escapism one of the reasons why movies exist in the first place?

Next year, Ms. Daum, I'm inviting you to my Oscar party.

California Has A Budget - Barely

The state of California finally passed a budget a couple of days ago. It's not a pretty sight; there are lots of cuts, and some increases in taxes. Republicans fought the taxes very hard, and demanded cuts in social services and education. For example, the California State University system (which is the second-tier system, below the University of California, but above community colleges) is going to lose 10,000 students. That's just mind-boggling.

Apparently the Democratic leaders in the Assembly and Senate worked together well, which is good. Arnold did a reasonably decent job, but he's also part of the problem; he slashed the vehicle license fee when he came into office, which is part of why we're in the mess that we're in. Arnold has a seriously dysfunctional relationship with most of the Republican party. He doesn't like them, and they don't like him. He's very much a RINO (Republican In Name Only). I think could have been a very good governor if he had had political experience before he was elected. As it is, he's been learning on the job, which has not been an entirely positive experience for the citizens of California. He also doesn't really have a base to mobilize.

Republicans hate paying taxes because they don't see themselves as getting anything in return. They see taxes as going to support poor people in the inner cities. They see money for education going for liberal professors who are critical of Republicans. They see money for drug rehabilitation going to criminals who threw away their chances to be good citizens, and now only deserve jail.

Not all Republicans think this way, obviously, but enough of the ones in the California legislature do to wreak havoc on the state budgeting process. These idiots even negotiated some tax cuts for businesses. That's just absurd. Tax cuts for businesses when we are cutting education? If I were a responsible business owner, I would be furious. I would like a tax cut to hire new people, but what I really need are educated employees. And educated customers who have enough money to buy my products.

A big part of the problem is that the state has become almost ungovernable. A two-thirds majority is required to pass the budget. There are some good leaders in the legislature, but they're very new; Karen Bass, the Speaker, has only been in that position since May. Why? Because of that utterly idiotic idea, term limits. I think term limits is one of the stupidest ideas in the history of politics, but we're stuck with them for now. We don't have the leaders that we used to, guys who had been around for a long time and who could broker deals quickly. Term limits become a self-fulfilling prophecy; voters are angry at their legislators, so they impose term limits, which limits their legislators ability to do their jobs, which makes the voters even angrier. Someone needs to put a stop to this madness.

There may be some good things to come out of this. As Rahm Emanuel says, "Never waste a good crisis." One of the reasons this was finally passed was that one state senator, Abel Maldonado, traded his vote for a promise to open up primaries. It would mean that the top two vote-getters in a primary, regardless of party, would face off in a general election. This takes the power out of the hands of the parties, and puts it in the hands of voters. The hope is that it will reward more moderate candidates, because independent voters would be more likely to vote for them. The parties, of course, hate it.

This is yet another - how many more of these do we need? - example of Republicans failing to come to terms with the exhaustion of their anti-tax ideology. Republicans used to be the party of good management. They have long since abandoned that. They aren't managing, they aren't governing, they're just reacting. Our next governor, let us pray, will be a Democrat with even bigger Democrat majorities. Never waste a good crisis. Particularly if the crisis is in your opposition's electoral strategy.

The Impact of Milk

The WaPo looks at the cultural impact that "Milk" has had. It hasn't made much money; $27 million at the box office.

But my feeling is that it has had, and, more importantly, will have, a dramatic impact. The article points out that it has had a great impact on the younger generation, providing them a glimpse of what the gay rights movement was like back in the day. Because, let's face it, this movie is better than anything that will ever show up in even the most progressive high school textbooks.

As for the impact on the straight population? I think it will be nothing but good, largely because it's such a sweet, positive movie. The scene where he picks up James Franco is one of the most wonderful seduction scenes you will ever see, because it's just so obviously love at first sight. Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk as just a peach of a guy, the kind of man anybody would love to have as their neighbor or coworker or brother-in-law or friend. He's smart, funny, honest, brave and compassionate. What's not to love?

But there is one simple fact about Harvey Milk that may be the most inspiring, and which he had no control over. He is an American, and his story is a quintessentially American story. It's a story about love and freedom. What could be more American?

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

So I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or, as I like to think of it, "How To Spend $150 Million To Score An Oscar Nomination For Best Picture (but not win the actual Oscar)."

It's a gorgeous movie, very well-directed, with wonderful production design, excellent cinematography and good acting. But underneath the expensive special effects (which you can't tell are there, but which you know are, in fact, there) are two things: kind of a cool gimmick, and a story that isn't as interesting as the gimmick.

The gimmick is that Benjamin Button ages backwards. He's born the size of a regular human baby, but with the afflictions of an 80-year old man. He gradually becomes more limber, his wrinkles disappear, his hair comes back, he turns into Brad Pitt.

His mind, however, ages just like the rest of us; he's an innocent child, then an adventurous young man, then a somewhat stable middle-aged man, etc.

The one thing that Benjamin Button never is, however, is a fascinating character apart from his chronological quirkiness. Brad Pitt earned an Oscar nomination for the role, and I think he deserved it, if only for the technical challenge. But the character is just not that exciting. He's fairly passive. He's kind of shy. He's not particularly smart or creative or crazy or charismatic. He falls in love early on with a girl in the neighborhood. This is interesting because they're both children, but he looks like her grandfather. They are, of course, star-crossed lovers, flirting for years, abandoning each other, finding each other, etc. She is played by Cate Blanchett, and watching the two of them light up the screen is oddly comforting and heartwarming. They cross paths, timewise, in middle age. It's the 60's, a particularly candy-colored version thereof, when people their age were hip and groovy and Simon and Garfunkel were brand new. It's a cozily nostalgic remembrance of an allegedly more innocent time.

It threatens to become sentimental, but never does. David Fincher, who is better known as a director of intense thrillers (Seven, Fight Club) and stunning music videos (Madonna's Vogue, Paula Abdul's Cold Hearted Snake) knows what he's doing.

A co-worker mentioned that it feels like Forrest Gump, and there's a good reason: both were written by Eric Roth. Forrest Gump's great charm came from the fact that, because he was too stupid to lie, so he was always telling the truth. Benjamin Button the movie lays on the charm with almost every shot. Benjamin Button the man has trouble charming the love of his life, to say nothing of the audience.

There's a good framing device; the story is told by a woman reading her mother's diaries, while she sits with her mother in a hospital. The older woman is dying, and dying quickly. The younger woman is played by Julia Ormond, who was once the hottest young starlet in Hollywood. In this movie she looks like a hard-worn version of Sandra Bullock. She's not remotely glamourous, but mature in a way that suggests she has a deep well of wisdom and self-imposed tough love. I'm focusing on her because although we know very little about her, and, in a movie with lavish costume and production design she wears the same thing in a basic setting, she anchors the movie for a simple reason: she's the most real thing about it. Welcome back, Ms. Ormond, hope to see you again soon.

I like Brad Pitt, I like Cate Blanchett, I like David Fincher (although I prefer his music videos to his movies). I liked Benjamin Button, but I didn't love it. One part of the definition of an epic story is that it has to be a story of national significance. Forrest Gump accidentally became an epic because it told a story against a backdrop of many incidents of national significance. Benjamin Button does almost nothing of the kind, despite covering a longer span of time. Forrest Gump is also a movie of both great tragedy (his mother, best friend, and wife all die) and high comedy. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a comfortable drama, which, apart from being almost a contradiction in terms, is not a recipe for greatness. Or a Best Picture Oscar.

Bailing out GM and Chrysler

So GM and Chrysler need more money. Not surprising, somehow. I'm mostly supportive. I don't know whether or not the worst is over; I doubt it. But the arguments in favor of the original bailout still apply.

We are not bailing out GM and Chrysler. We are bailing out a generation of old white guys. Consider someone a GM retiree who turns 90 this year. He would have been born in 1919, just after WWI, when Woodrow Wilson was president, and before Marilyn Monroe was born. Let's say he started working at GM at the age of 20, in 1939, and worked there for 30 years, until 1969.

This guy survived the Depression, helped America win WWII, then survived the Cold War and Vietnam War. He's proud of the sacrifices that he made, he's proud of the fact that he worked hard, he's proud of his kids and grandkids.

If he retired in 1969, he's been retired for 40 years, which is longer than he worked. He might live another ten years. He grew up believing that working hard early in life would guarantee an easy life in retirement. That was the deal that he made.

Somewhere along the way, the deal changed. Now we can't afford to pay people to be retired for longer than they worked. And that idea - that you could live off of your pension for decades - was a historical anomaly.

In retrospect, it wasn't a great deal, because now the Big Three are burdened with huge legacy costs.

But hindsight is 20/20. None of us can know whether or not we would have made a different deal. We cannot perform a real cost/benefit analysis. We cannot calculate the benefits of white guys who spent more time with their families, who volunteered more in their communities, who started other businesses, because they retired early. We also don't know how many of them were white guys. We don't know how many of them are women, or minorities. We have no idea how many African American men pulled themselves up by their bootstraps because in the 1940's they could stand up for long periods of time. We can assume that there are more white men in this group than black women, but we don't know what the ratio is.

What we do know is that we are living in the world that those white guys created. We are dealing with the legacies of their health care costs, their incredibly generous pensions, the pollution of the industries they worked in, some dysfunctional corporate cultures, some laws that inhibit change.

But we are also living in the world of the interstate highway system, the Internet, an unparalleled system of higher education, increasingly clean air and water, an ever-more diverse society, and (relative) peace.

We are living in a world created by white guys in the 1950's. We have inherited their legacies, both good and bad. We are changing the world in ways that they do not always understand or appreciate, and which they occasionally resist. Those guys still have an inordinate degree of influence, because they have money, and they hold positions of influence in their communities.

We have very little choice but to support these old white guys. But to do that, we are going to have to change things that they grew up with. We should be grateful to them. But they are going to have to let us do our own thing.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

HSX: Week of February 20, 2009

Not much excitement on the Exchange this week, just two wide openings. Tyler Perry dons a wig again to play Madea, only this time she is going to jail in Madea Goes To Jail (MDGTJ). Every filmmaker is part artist and part hustler; the question is always how much of each do they have. Ingmar Bergman is mostly artist; Roger Corman, just about pure hustler. I'm not sure how much of an artist Tyler Perry is; he's certainly very creative, I just haven't seen enough of his work to judge the quality. But damn can the man hustle. The stock has been on a slow but steady rise up, to the low 70's. Without any competition to speak of, he has the field wide open. However, HSX set the strike price for the options at H$30, which I think was highly optimistic. The market agrees with me; the call is floating between H$1.50 and H$2, while the put is close to H$5. A $25 million opening weekend would still be quite respectable.
Stock: Long
Call: Short
Put: Long

The only other wide release is one of the cheesiest excuses for exposing celluloid to light that I have ever heard of. It's called Fired Up (MAXFU: the MAX stands for Maxim), and it's about two star high school football players who enroll in cheerleading camp because there are no other guys there. The marketing is quite explicit: 300 girls. 2 guys. You do the math. There was a funny moment in the trailer; one of the guys starts to take the cheers seriously, and suddenly he's worrying about things guys don't normally worry about. That's funny. It could be a guilty pleasure, but my guess is that the portion of the audience in the female-above-35 category will be approximately zero. The stock has been dropping of late, possibly due to traders remembering such things as taste and decency. The strike price is H$10, with the options sending mixed signals. The call is at H$2, which is close to the prediction of the stock. The put, however, is at H$3.43, strongly suggesting that this is a bomb of historic proportions. Every now and then I take a position strictly for reasons of taste. Guess what I am doing this week. Taking a stand for all the feminists that I know and love.
Stock: Short
Call: Short
Put: Long

Update Wednesday evening (I took a couple of days off of blogging). Boy, did I underestimate Tyler Perry. I said that a $25 million opening weekend would be good; his movie brought in $41 million. Boy did I pick the wrong movie to short the call. Let this be a lesson: don't short the call on a Tyler Perry movie. The problem with shorting a call is that there is technically infinite upside, so there's really no limit to your losses if you short a call. So it's rarely a good idea to short a call. So I am going to come up with a new rule of thumb: only short a call if the stock itself is on a downward trend. And remember that HSX is usually very good at setting the strike price.

Fired Up, on the other hand, tanked, and shorting the call on that one was actually the right thing to do. So I learned a lesson this weekend, and then learned a lesson that reinforced the first one. The lesson is: be very, very careful about shorting a call of a stock that is rising, but be sure to short a stock that is tanking.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Stanley Fish on the Problem of Tenure, Academic Freedom, and Free Speech

Stanley Fish is a blogger at the NY Times who is a distinguished professor of law. I like his stuff occasionally, but can't say I'm a huge fan. But I respect an academic who's very engaged with the public. This week he has a fascinating post about tenure and academic freedom. He explored this theme in his previous week's post, about a guy named Denis Rancourt (remember that name), a professor of physics at the University of Ottawa who has taken the cause of academic pretty to its logical extreme; he has not only been fired, but banned from the campus (read Fish's post for the graphic details).

The issue at hand is what responsibilities professors have to the university that pays them, and what to do when those responsibilities conflict with academic freedom. Rancourt, the guy in Ottawa takes the position that his responsibility is to undermine the university in the name of answering to a higher truth. Having worked in the real world ever since graduating from college, I find this a bizarre idea, but, having gone to a college that was a training ground for academics (Swarthmore), I'm not unfamiliar with the logic.

Most academics realize that they have responsibilities to their instiutions, to their departments, their colleagues, and their students. But a fair number also subscribe to what Fish calls "academic exceptionalism," the idea that, as academics, they are somehow better than the mere mortals who do not have advanced degrees. I am, again, familiar with this concept, largely because I have been on both sides of it. Swarthmore was very much a training ground for academics. Many of my friends went on to careers in academia (and a fair number started down that path, then diverged away from it). I majored in philosophy. Swarthmore had such a good track record of training philosophy professors that a professor there told me that there were more professors of philosophy with undergrad degrees from Swat than from any other college or university. And that was absolute numbers, not a percentage.

I once asked that same professor what the purpose of philosophy is. I figured that if there is one group of professionals who will be able to answer deep questions about the meaning of their occupation, it would be philosophy professors. This professor answered that I had a talent for asking difficult questions in an innocent tone of voice (when a philosophy professor tells you that you are asking him a difficult question, that means he is very impressed). But then he told me that, for him, the purpose of philosophy was to offer a critique of society.

Yet again, I've been on both sides of that perspective. I struggled with this idea of philosophy providing a "critique of society" because I wanted to buy into it. I wanted to believe that I could make the world a better place just by sitting around and thinking.

But there is a deep arrogance in the idea that your profession bestows upon you the right to "critique society." First, it implies that you understand society well enough to critique it. That may or may not be true. But there is, of course, a moral element to "critiquing society." To do so is to grant yourself the right to dictate to other people how they should act. To assume that you have the right to tell other people how to behave because of your job seems to me extraordinarily arrogant.

Of course, in a democracy we are all social critics. But we also respect each other's right to engage in the practice of arguing about politics.

This arrogance is part of what Fish is writing about when he describes "academic exceptionalism." He explores where this leads, and doesn't like where it takes him. Neither do I. One place it leads to is a denial of responsibility. Fish doesn't mention this, but it occurs to me that if you set up a situation where people are not responsible to other people, you will attract people who are irresponsible. I think that explains, in part, the phenomenon of people like this idiot Rancourt. They don't want to be responsible, and they are enabled by an environment in which they are allowed to develop highly intellectually sophisticated justifications for not being held responsible for the impact that their ideas have on other people. There's another term for this. It's called being a jerk.

One other aspect that Fish doesn't get into is that even if individuals in colleges are not held accountable for their ideas, the institutions ultimately will be. I was very disillusioned by my education, for a number of reasons. I have a love/hate relationship with my undergraduate alma mater. It was the perfect place for me when I started there, but I outgrew it quickly, without realizing it. So I wasn't happy by the time I graduated.

I have been the recipient of many requests for donations from Swarthmore since graduating. I have answered almost none of them. This is one way that accountability works its slow, slow way through the system; students are affected by the ideas of their professors. Then those students become alumni. And just about every college and university in this country depends on alumni donations for support. If the disillusionment that I experienced ever reaches critical mass, we will have an accountability moment for colleges and universities of catastrophic proportions. And professors will yell and scream and bitch and moan and protest and issue demands and be angry and confused because they will have no idea what hit them.

I am a strong proponent of academic freedom, but I am a strong opponent of tenure. I do not think academic freedom requires tenure; I think it requires strong leadership from each institution's managers. Of course, it also helps to have strong endowments.

There may have been a time when tenure was necessary. I'm sure there are still many professors who benefit from it. But those with tenure pay a high cost, and that is in respect. There's a reason professors are stereotyped as living in ivory towers; because many are not held accountable for their ideas, as the rest of us are. I make a key distinction between professors in the hard sciences and those in the social sciences and humanities. I have a great deal of respect for physicists, biologists, chemists, etc., because they are held accountable for their ideas by reality; they are answerable to their experiments. Some social scientists are good enough scientists that they are also answerable to their experiments. But many are not. Philosophy professors, of course, are very much in this latter camp. They are intellectually disciplined by the logic of their arguments.

There was a time when colleges and universities were bastions of enlightened and progressive thinking in a world where those qualities were not common. That is no longer the case. Colleges and universities have been extraordinarily successful at educating generations of students to be intellectually curious, to ask questions, to debate great ideas. Professors have, in a sense, created their own competition. Swarthmore generally ranks very high among liberal arts colleges in the U.S. News and World Report rankings; I don't think it has ever dropped lower than three. Williams and Amherst are usually the other top two. But Swarthmore's competition is no longer Williams, or Amherst, or Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. It isn't Michigan, Berkeley, or UVA.

The great reason that academic exceptionalism is increasingly an anachronistic idea is that the centers of englightened and progressive thinking are no longer places like Harvard and Berkeley, but Google, McKinsey, and the NY Times. Great ideas are now debated in places like the ACLU; Skadden, Arps; Brookings; Kleiner, Perkins; and DreamWorks.

At some point the idea of academic exceptionalism is going to collide with the limitations of how much we, as a society, are willing to pay for college education. When that happens, the arrogance of the people who responded to Stanley Fish with eloquent articulations of their own unique responsibilities towards truth is going to be a poor defense against society's demands for accountability.

Jai Ho

This song has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song. It plays over the credits at the end of the movie with the best title for a movie in a long time, Slumdog Millionaire. Slumdog Millionaire was not nominated for Oscar for Best Costume, but I think someone should win an award for the yellow scarf that Freida Pinto wears in this scene.

Viva Bipartisanship!

Barack Obama believes in bipartisanship. He's firmly committed to listening to his political opponents, incorporating their ideas when they make sense, and working with them to find solutions to common problems. Bob Herbert is still very impressed by this. Some people aren't. Many people aren't impressed with this, notably Kos, who is a proud partisan, and can justify his perspective fairly well.

Obama's bipartisanship didn't look all that effective in the debate over the stimulus; all the Republicans in the House voted against it, only three Republicans in the Senate voted for it.

Except that it did, in fact, pass, mostly as Obama wanted it.

There are two levels of Obama's bipartisan commitment. On the tactical, day-to-day level, he invites Republicans senators to hang out in the Oval Office, he visits Capitol Hill, he incorporates their ideas. That's the basic, do-what-it-takes-to-get-things-done level. It's extremely high profile, and attracts a great deal of attention. It's very obvious when no one in the opposition votes for your bill.

On a deeper level, or perhaps on a broader basis (pick your spatial metaphor), Obama's commitment to bipartisanship means that he is the anti-Karl Rove, the opposite of George Bush, who so spectacularly failed to be a uniter, and ended up being a divider. Obama's idea of bipartisanship means that he will not use the power of the presidency to push an agenda that uniquely benefits Democrats. He is a Democrat, and he will advocate Democratic ideas. As Herbert quoted him,

“I’m an eternal optimist,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m a sap.”
The man is from Chicago; he's not a wimp. But he's different from Bush, for example, in his commitment to helping out the broadest possible range of people with the stimulus package. Democrats and Republicans use the same roads. Socialists, libertarians, and moderates all live in houses, have mortgages, and would like to send their kids to college.

Bipartisanship for Obama means that he will not promote divisive issues, the way Rove pushed gay marriage as a wedge issue. Obama is going to have to make decisions that divide people into winners and losers, but he will try to be equitable and fair.

I once read a great anecdote about Bill Clinton. In law school, he took a class on corporate law, but blew it off for almost the entire semester (I have since learned that this is not all that unusual in law school). He walked into the final and aced it. The professor asked him how he did it. Clinton replied that he didn't necessarily understand corporations, but he understands politics, and everybody has to get something.

That's the guiding principle of Obama's bipartisanship: everybody has to get something. He is not motivated by vengeance or revenge. He doesn't want to screw anyone over just because he can, or because they opposed him. He does not believe in retribution.

What Republicans utterly fail to understand is that this is a source of strength for Obama, because it's part of the reason for his popularity with the American people. Reagan had something of the same appeal, although Reagan was more of a partisan than Obama is. Reagan used to say "after 6:00, we're all friends," and apparently he really meant it. That was part of why so many Americans were willing to forgive him his foibles, and why Democrats had so much trouble attacking him. He actually did make an effort to get along with Congressional Democrats, even when he strongly disagreed with them. Or at least that's my memory.

Just about every American understands what it is like to be screwed over by someone more powerful than you, and every American expects it to happen in the political system. But just about every American also recognizes fairness when they see it. Whether or not they will admit that someone is being is, of course, a different question.

Obama believes in bipartisanship for two reasons: One, he actually can listen to his opponents and find common ground with them, and two, he's not afraid of his opponents. No wonder Republicans are so discombobulated by it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Number cruncing the Oscars

Some great Oscar predictions from Nate Silver, proprietor of, crunched some numbers for the Oscars. Woo hoo! His predictions lend some credence to conventional wisdom; Heath Ledger is a lock for Best Supporting Actor, and Slumdog Millionaire is going to take Best Picture and Best Director. By his calculations, Slumdog has a 99% chance of winning Best Picture, while Danny Boyle's chances of winning Best Director are, if you can believe it, even better - 99.7%. Don't bet against those odds! (Complete list of nominees is here.)

For Oscar predictions I use what I call the "Zero Sum Karma Theory of Oscar Predictions." This theory says that there are some movies that deserve some kind of recognition at the Oscars, and will win at least one major award (i.e., not one of the technical or craft awards). A corollary of the theory is that all the recognition that some movies deserve is to be nominated, so they won't be winning anything, because, to paraphrase the cliche, it's an honor to be nominated for them. I put Frost/Nixon in this category. A good movie, but not great, and everyone involved should be happy with their nominations. I thot Frank Langella was very good as Nixon, but this year, Heath Ledger trumps everyone else. And not just because he died - it was just a mind-blowing performance. As a coworker puts it, this year, if I were one of the living Best Supporting Actor nominees, I wouldn't want to win.

I put Milk in the category of "good enough to deserve a major award." I think it will take Best Original Screenplay, which is sort of like second place for Best Picture or Best Director. It's particularly apt as second place for Best Director if the director is one of the screenwriters. This is one reason Quentin Tarantino won Best Screenplay for Pulp Fiction; he lost Best Director that year to Robert Zemeckis for Forrest Gump, so winning Best Screenplay was sort of a consolation prize. Although, in that case, I'm not even sure it was a consolation prize, because I think the screenplay for Pulp Fiction really did deserve an Oscar, and Tarantino's screenplay may have been better than his diecting for Pulp Fiction. His directing was solid, but the screenplay was, of course, brilliant.

So if Milk wins Best Original Screenplay, which it probably will (I thot the screenplay was excellent), then it will have won one major award. Which means that Sean Penn will not necessarily win Best Actor, although I think his performance was amazing. Which means that Mickey Rourke might win Best Actor simply on the strength of his performance. That's been known to happen - see Swank, Hillary, for Boys Don't Cry.

Silver predicts Tariji P. Henson will win Best Supporting Actress for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Again, the Zero Sum Karma Theory comes into play here. Another name for the Zero Sum Karma Theory is the "It's Gotta Win Something Theory." Benjamin Button is a huge, gorgeous movie, with some wonderful performances, but it falls short of greatness. I haven't seen any of the other movies (Doubt just sounds too depressing), so I can't make much of a comparison, but playing the adoptive mother of a man growing backwards is certainly a challenge. Button should win something, and this would be a good one; other than the two stars, Henson is at the core of the movie.

For Best Actress, Silver predicts Kate Winslet for The Reader. Again, haven't seen it, although I understand that she is naked for parts of it. That's interesting, but, then again, we saw Kate Winslet naked in Titanic. Oh, wait, this is supposed to be about the Oscars. Kate's main competition is Meryl Streep in Doubt, who of course is serious competition. The It's Gotta Win Something Theory says that Doubt does not have to win something, because it doesn't have a lot of nominations - four for acting, one for Best Adapted Screenplay. I have a feeling that for Meryl Streep to win her third Oscar, it has to be for something really stunning. I don't think this is it. I'm going with Kate.

Thanks Nate for the numbers! See you on Sunday, February 22, at 8:00 PM Pacific Time!

Friday, February 13, 2009

John Kennedy was not a jelly doughnut

For years I've heard the rumor that when John Kennedy went to Berlin and declared "Eich bein ein Berliner," what he said was not "I am a Berliner," but "I am a jelly doughnut." But I've also heard that that is a rumor that is not true. It came up today at work, and I did a little bit of online research. So, once and for all, it is not true. First of all, it was clear from the context what Kennedy meant. He was not giving a speech about pastries; he was giving a speech about the Cold War. The equivalent in English would be saying "I am a danish." It sounds a little awkward, but if you were talking about foreign policy, everyone would understand that by "danish," you were referring to yourself as a citizen a small northern European country (even if you aren't a citizen of that country), not what you had for breakfast.

Kennedy got it right. Good to know that one urban legend is just that.

Speaking of northern European countries and doughnuts, Andrew Sullivan happened to post this old clip from a Muppets show. He was referring to Obama's plan for the bank bailout as being "not Swedish," i.e. not nationalizatin. I'm going to take advantage of the coincidence and post it. If you watch closely, it's really well done - the doughnuts land perfectly.

Gregg Withdraws - What The -------?

Judd Gregg withdrew his nomination for Commerce Secretary in the Obama administration. Another one bites the dust. Doesn't look great for Obama, but at least there is no issue of taxes or any kind of impropriety. Unless you consider indecision and flakiness variants of impropriety.

Gregg claims that he made a mistake, and couldn't quite square his position on the stimulus and the census with that of the administration. This is odd, because Obama's position on the stimulus has not changed in any substantive way, and the census should not be a big political issue. We have been conducting a census every ten years for literally centuries. We should be good at it. Of course, since so much hangs on the census, like representation in Congress, funding for various projects, etc., it's not that simple, but still, it should not have been a deal breaker for Gregg.

Obama may be a little more reluctant to be reach out to Republicans, but I think his bipartisan instincts will mostly remain intact. He deserves credit for nominating Gregg, and Obama and his folks did absolutely nothing wrong with this nomination. He treated the man with respect, and I think he'll get credit for that. Gregg is the one who looks indecisive. One factor may have been that being a senator is very different from running a Cabinet agency. Maybe Gregg just didn't realize how much administration and management was involved; the Senate is much more about policy.

Rumors are swirling that Gregg was taking a fair amount of heat from other Republicans, particularly in New Hampshire. But he has apparently decided not to run for reelection in 2010, so it's not clear why that pressure from Republicans would have made such a crucial difference.

This is Obama's fourth nominee to withdraw, but at least we don't have a John Tower on our hands. John Tower was a Republican senator from Texas who was nominated to be Defense Secretary in George H. W. Bush's administration. He was plagued by accusations of alcoholism, conflicts of interest, and misbehavior towards women. His nomination made it all the way to the full Senate, where he was rejected, 53-47 (Democrats had a majority at the time). John Tower was the quintessential good old boy, and his rejection was healthy for democracy. I found one very interesting comment in the NY Times article about the vote:
In defending Mr. Tower, some senators warned their colleagues that the intense focus on alcohol and women, the subjects that dominated the six days of Senate debate, was raising new and dangerous standards of behavior.

''The question is going to be asked of senators when they go out and start running for office,'' said Senator Steve Symms, Republican of Idaho. ''What's in your F.B.I. file? Can we really live up to the standards that have been set up here?''
Can we live up to the standards of not nominating for Cabinet positions people who are misogynist alcoholics with ethically sloppy attitudes towards conflicts of interest? Yes we can. Yes we have. Compared to John Tower, Tom Daschle was a Boy Scout. Standards are constantly being raised. That's one reason people get caught by them; behavior that was once acceptable, or at least not damning, becomes unacceptable.

That vote on Tower took place on March 10, 1989, which was almost two months into Bush's administration. Every administration has problems getting started, in part because it's such a huge job. There is nothing like it in the world. In a week or a month or two, Obama will have a Commerce Secretary, and no one will remember that Judd Gregg had a change of heart. It could be worse for Obama. And it will get better.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

HSX: Week of February 13, 2009

Guess what tomorrow is. Friday the 13th. Guess what movie is opening tomorrow. Friday the 13th, Part XXXVIII. They're really going to go hog wild when they make the 13th version of this movie, aren't they? This one is actually Part 11 (FRI11), although I don't think that's part of the marketing. I have no idea how they are going to "re-imagine" it this time, and I don't really care. The stock is on a steady march upward, which suggests that the previously starving actors and actresses who star in this will hopefully be able to do their part to stimulate the economy when they get their royalty checks. It's at H$74.70, a new high, and up H$3 for the day. That's unusual - traders usually take profits on the day before a movie opens, so the buzz on this one must be very good. The director is Marcus Nispel, who directed the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Pathfinder. The former was highly successful, the latter less so, largely because it sucked. The strike price is H$25, with the call trading very high, near H$6, with the put looking like a victim of Jason. Here's a bit of trivia: in Microsoft Word, there's an annoying tendency (at least there was; it may be fixed in the later versions) for tabs to show up every quarter inch or so. They are called "Jason tabs" because, like the character in these movies, they just keep coming back. Seriously. I'm going with $29-$32 million.
Stock: Long
Call: Long
Put: Short as the blonde chick's life span in this movie

Hopefully much more intelligent, and possibly much scarier, given that it is a thriller about the international financial system, is The International (NTRNL), starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, everybody's favorite almost-A-listers. The stock has been heading sort of casually up, and it currently about H$30, down from a high of H$35. The director is Tom Tykwer, a German who made the great Run Lola Run. I'm a fan of finding out something out about the producers on a movie as a way of refining my guess about the opening weekend. One of the producers is a guy that I have never heard of, Charles Roven, but who made this year's favorite Oscar snub, The Dark Knight. The Dark Knight (+ Digital Copy and BD Live) [Blu-ray] is probably the one you want to buy to remind yourself how much the Academy messed up this year. Good peeps involved in this movie with an incredibly boring name, so hopefully it won't get beaten up too badly by the other movie being released this weekend made by a German director (Nispel is also German). Strike price is H$10, right on target. Call is nice and high, while the put is just barely above H$1. The reviews might actually matter on this one, so I checked out Rotten Tomatoes, where it's getting a somewhat respectable 56%. My guess is that word of mouth will be solid. And bankers are certainly a good choice for bad guys these days. Look for something around $12-$14 million.
Stock: Long
Call: Long
Put: Short

And now for something completely different: Confessions of a Shopaholic (SHOPA), which will be either the victim or the beneficiary of some extraordinary timing. This might be the perfect movie for right now, or it might be absolute worst. I'm leaning towards this moment being a fortuitous moment to release a movie about a woman who has severe financial problems. It looks funny, and Isla Fisher looks great. Reviews are unkind but not savage, with only 22% on RT (below Jason's current 27%). Stock is at H$52, a high, with the trend generally, but not completely, positive. Strike price is H$20, again, right on target. The call is at H$3, but that's down from H$4, so doubts are creeping in. The put is not far off, H$2.39. Rarely do we see the options so close in price. I think the market is as confused as I am. Four things make me slightly optimistic. First, we know that the market undervalues chick flicks, as it did last weekend with He's Just Not That Into You. Second, like that movie, this one has a fair amount of star power, including Joan Cusack and Kristin Scott Thomas. Third, a comedy about finances sounds like fun to me right now. Fourth, the producer is the real star here, much more well-known than anyone else: his name is Jerry Bruckheimer. Yes, the man more known for his ability to make movies for guys made a movie for women. I don't bet against him. Going a little out on a limb, I'm looking for something around $21-$23 million.
Stock: Long
Call: Long
Put: Short

Update Friday morning: FRI11 is doing well, up H$4 - very good sign. The International dropped H$2.50 this morning, not good, but maybe just normal noise. But Confessions of a Shopaholic is tanking, down H$3.75. Time to bail, which is what I did. Rating on RT is down to 19%. Looks like a bomb, which is too bad for Isla Fisher. The irony of the timing might be just too much.

Update Tuesday afternoon: Well that was certainly a great weekend for Friday the 13th. It cleared $45.2 million, adjusting up $H21 to H$99. Not bad for a remake. Confessions of a Shopaholic came in below expectations at $17.3 million, adjusting downward H$8. Good thing I shorted it Friday morning! Note: I forgot that this was a four-day weekend, but that didn't really affect my predictions. Finally, The International adjusted slightly downward, about H$4.5, bringing in $10.7 million. 2 out of 3 ain't bad. I made a ton of money on the FRI11 call, did well on the put, and split the difference on the other two, so I made money on 6 out of 9 securities, and, on the losers, only suffered minimal losses. Another good weekend!

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin. There's lots of commentary floating out there about Darwin and his legacy, which stems in large part from the publication of The Origin of Species. There is, of course, The Origin Of Species: 150th Anniversary Edition.

The best commentary that I read in anticipation of this date was in last weekend's Financial Times. It was a review of several books about Darwin. Appropriate, isn't it?

I was particularly intrigued by this book: Darwin's Sacred Cause: How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin's Views on Human Evolution

The authors argue that Darwin's opposition to slavery was not merely an adjunct to his career as a biologist, but a driving force for him. The FT:

Desmond and Moore demonstrate convincingly from unpublished correspondence that abolition of slavery was more than a background belief for Darwin. It was a sacred cause. While his relations threw themselves into abolitionist rallies and petitions, he set out to subvert slavery through science – to refute its apologists’ argument that blacks and whites were created separate and unequal. Darwin’s Sacred Cause provides an interesting link between him and the other great abolitionist born on February 12 1809: Abraham Lincoln, also the subject of a good crop of anniversary books.
The abolitionist link between Lincoln and Darwin has gone tragically unmentioned in any of the celebrations or recognitions of this historic day that I have read. That's really too bad, and I hope to do more to rectify it.

Thinking of Darwin and race, it's intriguing to remember that the term "social Darwinism" has strongly regressive and oppressive connotations; it's usually associated with justifying the victory of the strong over the weak in society. Works well for strong libertarians and hardcore capitalists. It's good to know that Darwin himself was strongly opposed to slavery.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

I found this at the Library of Congress Website. There are several different versions of the Gettysburg Address; this is the version that is inscribed at the Lincoln Memorial. Today is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth.

Obama on Lincoln

President Obama today, remembering Abraham Lincoln on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

I particularly like the anecdote at the end about how Lincoln, near the end of the Civil War, did not allow any Confederate soldiers to be punished. He wanted them to go home, and become citizens again. Which, in retrospect, was probably as important to saving the nation as actually winning the war.

One of my favorite Lincoln anecdotes is along the same lines. After the war, some Southerners came to the White House. Lincoln met them and was very friendly, and charmed them. His advisors didn't like this approach; how could Lincoln be so gracious to people who so recently had been his enemies? Lincoln replied that by befriending his enemies, he both lost enemies and gained friends.

The political period we are in now has, of course, echoes of the Civil War. An African-American is president; the South is largely one party, while most of the rest of the country is another. Andrew Sullivan thinks that the GOP has "declared war" on Obama. Sullivan, who should know conservatives, is surprised at the ferocity of the response to Obama.

I'm not. This does not surprise me in the least. But I am glad that Obama takes so much inspiration from Lincoln, because I think his conciliatory attitude is needed. The GOP is fighting Obama so intensely for one reason: they know they have already lost. They have lost the culture war on many fronts; civil rights, feminism, gay rights, abortion. They are losing the ideological argument.

The Republicans are simply terrified that they will be humiliated. That is, they are terrified that they will be more humiliated than they already have been by McCain's loss. At some point the anger will burn out, and they will concede. Obama's graciousness, his willingness to work with them, will come in very handy when that happens. But until then, the best that liberals, progressives, and Democrats can do is remember that, before Lincoln became an icon, a legend, a symbol of American democracy at its finest, he had to fight a war. And he had to win it.

We Have A Stimulus Package

The House and Senate reached an agreement on the stimulus package yesterday. Good for them. That was fairly quick. Obama should be signing it some time next week. Hallelujah! We have begun reframing the fundamental assumptions of American governance! Can I get an Amen!

The NY Times puts it well:

[F]or Democrats the stimulus bill is the most prominent display yet that they now fully control Washington. Their ability to push the package forward represented a turnabout from years of losing battles under President George W. Bush. For Republicans, it underscored the limits of their diminished ranks.
Which limits of diminished ranks the Republicans are still struggling to deal with. Hee hee hee. Naturally, they are complaining about lack of bipartisanship.

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, complained that despite Mr. Obama’s call for bipartisan cooperation, Republicans had largely been shut out. “We didn’t have a chance to negotiate,” Mr. Grassley said.
Maybe if they had been a little more concerned about bipartisanship when Karl Rove was accusing Democrats of being unpatriotic when they questioned Bush's policies, Democrats would be a little more open to being bipartisan these days.

I am a firm believer in listening to your opponents respectfully, and one reason that I am a big Obama fan is that he believes the same thing. I think Obama made an honest effort to reach out to Republicans, and several responded. But if no one in your party votes for a bill, you're not sending out positive bipartisan vibes.

But we have a stimulus package!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Lakers beat Oklahoma City Thunder, 105-98

The mighty Los Angeles Lakers beat the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday, 105-98. Kobe Bryant made a little history; he is the youngest player to reach 23,000 points. That's a lot of points, but normally I wouldn't post about an everyday Lakers game, even with Kobe notching another milestone. What caught my eye was that they played the Oklahoma City Thunder. Let me repeat that:

Oklahoma City has a basketball team called the Thunder.

Oklahoma City has a basketball team called the Thunder?

When did this happen? How did this happen? Did some team in some obscure city move over the last year and I completely missed it? And here I thot I was paying more attention to sports. This is what I get for letting my subscription to Sports Illustrated lapse.

"Oklahoma City Thunder" sounds like a minor league hockey team, or maybe an arena football team. Triple-A baseball, maybe. NBA team? Huh?

And I like to think of myself as one of the people in a blue state who tries not to ignore what happens in the flyover red states. I've been close to Oklahoma in the last year; I visited Denver twice. I'm not quite sure how close to Oklahoma that is, but it's a lot closer than LA is, that's for damn sure. Hello, friends and relatives in Denver! You're supposed to let me know about these major developments in your time zone!

I'm guessing that the Oklahoma City Thunder won't be playing in the playoffs, so I doubt I'll be paying them much attention again, unless the Lakers play them again. But now I'm curious about where this team came from. Not quite curious enough to do any research, but maybe curious enough to pay more attention the next time I see the name in the media.

Update: a co-worker suspects that maybe the LA Times made a mistake, and the Lakers actually played another team, and the copy editor didn't catch that the name of the team was wrong. That's possible, but it seems unlikely. This same co-worker thinks that maybe the Oklahoma City Thunder were just created, sort of like spontaneous combustion, and we didn't notice because there has been so much in the news lately. Again, unlikely, but maybe possible. The mystery deepens.

All Hail The Dean!

John Dingell, Dean of the House of Representatives, has achieved a remarkable feat: he is now the longest-serving member in the history of the House. He has represented Dearborn and other suburbs of Detroit for 53 years and two months, since December 1955, or 19,420 days. That's a long time. He's been in office since before my parents graduated from high school. Heck, the man has been in office since before my parents started high school.

Here's some historical perspective: Dingell has been in the House almost as long as rock and roll has been a genre of music. When Elvis released "Heartbreak Hotel," Dingell was in office. When Dingell entered the House, Paul McCartney was 13. Dingell took office before Sputnik launched. He has been in the House for the entirety of the Space Age.

As for the Information Age: He entered the House long before computers. How long? When Dingell swore his first oath of office, Bill Gates was less than two months old.

He remembers the days when General Motors had 50% of the US car market. It's not really surprising that he's such a fierce defender of the Big Three.

Some would argue that this kind of longevity is a symbol of what's wrong with Congress. Talk about entrenched! But I look at it as a positive sign. The people of his district have had many, many opportunities to vote for someone else, and they haven't. In just about every area of human relationships, we consider a very-long term relationship a good thing. My grandparents were married for 67 years; that's great. Dingell must be doing something right.

While I'm on the topic of John Dingell, however, and as much as I give him props for being a public servant for so long, I also have to tweak him a bit. I do strongly disagree with his positions on the environment, and I think his efforts to protect American car companies from higher fuel efficiency standards has backfired badly. The man is not popular with environmentalists. But when some members of Greenpeace came to Michigan, he welcomed them with open arms:

Congressman John D. Dingell (D-MI15) today welcomed out-of-state Greenpeace staff, as well as his constituents to his Ypsilanti Office, and thanked them for the welcome home cake they graciously brought to the office. The Congressman also presented a Michigan welcome basket to those Greenpeace staff members that have temporarily relocated to the great State of Michigan.
John Dingell was nice to the Greenpeace folks. That's nice. Greenpeace, however, did not return the favor. Two months later they made a statement:

Greenpeace today converted U.S. Rep. John Dingell’s office parking lot into a car dealership that sells the “Dingell Destroyer,” a line of cars with features the powerful Democrat supports: poor fuel efficiency, dirty fuel sources like liquid coal, and exemptions from EPA pollution standards. The group says the vehicles represent both Dingell’s empty rhetoric that keeps the House of Representatives from enacting global warming solutions and his misplaced loyalty to auto executives at the expense of the climate.

I'm sure Dingell has seen quite a bit of protests over 53 years. Democracy in action!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Michelle Obama, Policy Wonk

Michelle Obama has been visiting government agencies around Washington. She is, of course, wildly popular. The NY Times, in its article, tries to find some kind of controversy or conflict, as is its wont as a newspaper. But this seems silly.

It is a notably different approach than the one embraced by the former first lady, Laura Bush,
Well, yeah. Michelle Obama is different from Laura Bush. Sort of like Barack Obama is different from George Bush.

Some observers praised Mrs. Obama’s foray into the legislative debate, saying the new first lady, who is a Harvard-educated lawyer and a former hospital executive, was eminently qualified to promote the president’s policies.
Which she is.

Others expressed surprise, saying they had expected Mrs. Obama to focus on her daughters and on the traditional issues she had emphasized in the presidential campaign, like supporting military families and working parents. Her remarks, they said, carried echoes of former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, though Mrs. Obama has said she will not become involved in policymaking as Mrs. Clinton did.
Why anyone expected Michelle Obama to be a "traditional" First Lady is beyond me. Michelle Obama sounds a little like Hillary Clinton. Gosh, that's certainly a surprise! Not.

“She went to some lengths to say she was going to be first mom in chief,” Myra Gutin, a scholar of first ladies at Rider University in New Jersey, said of Mrs. Obama. “I don’t think we ever really imagined her edging toward public policy like this. It’s not like she’s making public policy. But it’s a little less neutral than some of the other things she’s talked about focusing on.”
If you did not imagine Michelle Obama engaging in policy debates, then there is a problem with your imagination, not Michelle Obama. Welcome to the 21st century. Yes, the first First Lady with a Harvard Law degree has strong opinions. I don't normally associate the word "neutral" with Michelle Obama. And that's a good thing.

Of course, on the other side are women who see this as utterly normal.

Marcia D. Greenberger, co-president of the National Women’s Law Center here, countered that Mrs. Obama was successfully balancing her ceremonial role as first lady, her role as a mother and her keen interest in public policy.
Keep it up, Michelle! You're doing a great job.

Look! It's a mayoral election!

Los Angeles is going to be holding an election for mayor on March 3, 2009. Less than a month away! This may be one of the most under-the-radar elections ever for an office that represents 3 million people. Our current Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, is running for reelection. He has almost no opposition. Rick Caruso, the developer of The Grove, considered running, but decided that this is not a good year to run for office in Los Angeles as a Republican. At this point, Antonio V's strongest opponent is a guy named Walter Moore, who is an independent. He's raised over $200,000, which is fairly impressive, but also irrelevant. Antonio has already survived an affair; at this point he would have to be convicted of some horrible crime to lose this election.

Antonio, naturally, doesn't want a debate with his opponents. Steve Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times, of course finds this appalling (Lopez will be portrayed by Robert Downey, Jr. in the upcoming movie The Soloist). He took a poll of his readers; 97% would like to see a debate. I think Antonio should engage his opponents in a debate, at the very least because I think it would be good for his future political career - he's probably going to run for either Governor or Senator. He's going to win this election in a walk - the only question is whether he's going to get 70% or 80% of the vote. He can afford to look gracious. By denying a debate, he looks small and petty. Not good, Antonio. I realize that part of the reason he only has token opposition is that Democrats completely dominate politics in LA, and he's actually done a decent job as mayor. But there are issues that I would like to hear debated. Tops on my list would be what the candidates plan to do about car alarms. Personally, I would outlaw all car alams in LA.

I can find reason to have fun in just about any election, but this one is boring. REALLY boring. I like Antonio, I think he's been a good Mayor, and might make a good governor. He's very energetic, I usually agree with him, and even when I don't, he takes clear, strong positions. The man is not wishy-washy. But he looks arrogant when he doesn't debate his opponents. Come on, Antonio, make this race just a little bit interesting.

Monday, February 9, 2009

This would be a good time not to panic

Finally - FINALLY! someone in the news media gets Barack Obama. At long last. Not too surprisingly, it's Bob Herbert.

There is always a tendency to underestimate Barack Obama. We are inclined in the news media to hyperventilate over every political or policy setback, no matter how silly or insignificant, while Mr. Obama has shown again and again that he takes a longer view.

There was no way, for example, that the Daschle flap was going to derail the forward march of a man who had survived the Rev. Jeremiah Wright fiasco. It’s early, but there are signs that Mr. Obama may be the kind of president who is incomprehensible to the cynics among us — one who is responsible and mature, who is concerned not just with the short-term political realities but also the long-term policy implications.
The parallels between Obama and Reagan occasionally bear revisiting. I think liberals still underestimate Reagan, even after he's long dead. Conservatives are going to be underestimating Obama for a very long time. That, of course, is fine with me.

As strong as the parallels with Reagan are - consistently underestimated by opponents, confounding cynics, radically transforming political assumptions - the contrasts with George W. Bush are just as striking. I love Herbert's description of Obama as inscrutable to cynics because he is responsible and mature, capable of thinking about policy in the long-term. Bush, of course, is none of these, but many people have not yet made the adjustment from thinking about Bush to thinking about Obama. It's actually not that unusual for a political leader to be mature and responsible. Much as I didn't like her, that's a good description of Maggie Thatcher.

I've read several columns and blog posts worrying about Obama's agenda, his momentum, his ability to push through his program. The man has been president for three weeks. He's got at least three years, eleven months, and one week to go. I'm not interested in being on an emotional rollercoaster for that entire time.

This would be a good time not to panic. Obama won a decisive victory. He has large majorities in Congress. The last time we had a Democratic president with majorities in the House and Senate was when Clinton was first elected in 92. Then the Republican took control of Congress in 1994, completely blindsiding Clinton, and making like very, very difficult for him. The Republicans are not going to do that to Obama. They are not going to retake either the House or Senate for a very long time.

Eyes on the prize, folks. Obama and the Dems compromised to get the stimulus through the Senate, but that's normal. Republicans fought it as hard as they did because they know that this is not an ordinary piece of legislation, or even an ordinary stimulus package. With this bill, Obama achieves what Reagan did with the Kemp-Roth bill in 1981 - he resets the priorities of government. When Reagan cut taxes, he made that the defining issue for the government, and Democrats could mostly just react. By spending a huge amount of money to get things done, Obama has accomplished a shift of similarly tectonic proportions. Yes, there are some tax cuts in the package, but the emphasis is on using the government's power to create jobs, solve problems, get things done.

With this package, Obama changed the terms of the discussion. It is no longer "should the government intervene," but "how should the government intervene." This is one of the first manifestations of Obama's victory. Republicans are simply terrified.

But Democrats should not be. There will be many, many more such manifestations of Obama's victory to come. Obama knows what he is doing, and he is - once again, the beautiful contrast with W. - capable of changing course quickly. Tom Daschle's tax problems got a lot of publicity because there wasn't much else to talk about. Once the stimulus package passes, and money starts to flow, and projects start to be funded, and potholes are filled, the terms of the conversation will shift again, and this time it will be to Obama's turf. Republicans are hoping that the stimulus package won't work because they hope Obama fails - because they are scared of what will happen if he succeeds. Which is why they are panicking. Which is why Democrats shouldn't.

Bob Herbert is willing to admit that maybe, just maybe, cynicism isn't always the best approach when dealing with Obama. Mature and responsible adults are not all that uncommon in America - there are millions of them. Many of whom see themselves in Obama.

This would be a good time not to panic. You know what other times would be good times not to panic? Every day for the next four to eight years.

USC in the NYT!

The University of Southern California was mentioned twice today in the New York Times - on the same page! And it wasn't in the sports section! It was on the front page of the Arts section.

First up was an entire article devoted to the glorious new home of the School of Cinematic Arts, my alma mater, and the greatest film school in the history of the universe. The new building is being paid for mostly by the great and wise George Lucas, because he went to USC, and he firmly believes that cinema should be taken more seriously in education. I wholeheartedly agree with him, and am very grateful for his generosity. He actually gave a building once before, but that one is being torn down. I am almost as grateful that the old building is being torn down as I am happy that the new one is being built. I wouldn't quite call the old one an "architectural monstrosity," but "mistake in concrete" would definitely be appropos. Damn but it was an ugly building. So, thanks George, and thanks to Elizabeth Daley, the dean of the school, and a fantastic fundraiser. If and when I am rich, I will endow something or other at USC. Apparently there is, inscribed in stone in the new building, the phrase "Limes regiones rerum," which is Latin for the school's motto, "Reality ends here." Some people think that's cheesy, but I love it.

The other mention of the best university in Southern California was in an article about the Grammys. The Trogan marching band, no stranger to pop music on live television, (they backed up Fleetwood Mac on "Tusk") backed up Radiohead. Good for them. I didn't watch the Grammys, but I'm glad Coldplay won for Viva La Vida. Love that song. Video could have been better, but great song.

I would like to this opportunity to point out that, although I am, of course, a fan of the Trojan marching band and I like Fleetwood Mac, the video for Tusk is, in my opinion, one of the worst music videos ever made.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Art, Sausage, Politics: Christian Bale and the Stimulus

Senators have reached an agreement about the proposed stimulus package. Christian Bale got in trouble this week for a profanity-laced rant he unleashed on the set of the latest Terminator movie (Bale has apologized). I'm not going to link directly to an audio of his rant, because this is a family-friendly blog. Maybe he's frustrated at following in other actors' footsteps; he is the third John Connor and the fourth modern Batman.

Those two news items don't seem like they have much to do with each other. But work with me for a minute. There's an old saying in politics that those who like sausage and legislation should watch neither being made. The same could be said, to an extent, for art. Art can be beautiful, funny, inspiring, tragic. But the process of making it (particularly movies) is rarely beautiful or inspiring (although it can definitely be funny or tragic).

Christian Bale's rant is unusual only because it was made public. There are many stories about movie stars acting badly on set. But they are, for the most part, just that: stories. Until now, there wasn't much hard physical evidence of a movie star being a jerk on set. Christian Bale just happened to be mouthing off within range of a live microphone in the age of the Internet. A political columnist (I can't remember who) gave this advice to pundits and politicians after one too many people were caught saying things they shouldn't have: if you are in front of a microphone, assume it is live and recording. The same is true of movie sets, particularly since they use some microphones that record over a much greater distance the ones in a TV set or on a podium. The whole point of making a movie, after all, is that it will ultimately be released to the public.

And we are now watching legislation being made in a much more intimate way than we did previously. There's a reason for the phrase "behind closed doors" and the cliche "smoke-filled back rooms." The process of coming up with enough compromises to make a piece of legislation passable was one that went on out of sight of the public. Not so much anymore. We know that Ben Nelson, Susan Collins, and Arlen Specter were key Republicans engaged in the final negotiations. The smoke-filled room was Harry Reid's office. I read about this on several different Websites within a few minutes of when it happened.

So those of us who are paying attention to these things are a little more aware of what happens behind the curtains. Christian Bale's reputation will probably never quite recover. No one is going to be quite satisfied with the stimulus, because we all know exactly who got what, and most people who see a program that they favor being cut are going to be upset about that part of the package.

But what the Internet takes away it also restores. Christian Bale apologized on a radio station in LA; Entertainment Weekly put it on its Website. It's also part of pop culture in ways no one would have imagined. Stephen Colbert parodied Bale's rant with Steve Martin as the target of his venom; I saw a mashup of Bill O'Reilly and Bale's rant. Bale apologized, and he was in one of the best movies of last year. If he can show the world that he can laugh at himself, maybe he'll come out even better. I have an idea: he should parody himself, but instead of ranting at a crew member, he should drop some f-bombs at the Academy, for not nominating Dark Knight for Best Picture or Christopher Nolan for Best Director. That could be funny. If Heath Ledger doesn't win Best Supporting Actor, he will have millions of people's permission to let loose.

As for the stimulus, disillusionment and discouragement seemed to set in in some quarters almost as fast as hope bloomed after November 4th. I do not countenance any cynicism at this point, and will not even begin to contemplate it for myself. The package came together quickly, and it looks like Obama will sign it less than a month after taking office. Part of the reason for the alacrity is the speed of communication these days. We all know how bad the economy is, and we all hear the same horrible news instantly.

Those who like legislation and sausage should watch neither being made. And if you don't have a strong stomach for constant setbacks and rejection, stay away from Hollywood. But the most difficult movies to make can be funny and inspiring. And two of the greatest speeches in American history were given in the middle of, and at the end of, our worst war: Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and his Second Inaugural. We are in a horrible economic crisis. Our Senators and Representatives just came up with a plan that may or may not solve this crisis.

Christian Bale finished making Terminator: Salvation, presumably without further incident; that tirade is actually from last July. The process of coming up with the stimulus was not pretty. But it's done. Time to clean up the details, watch Obama make great speeches pitching it to the American people, watch him sign it, have a few beers, maybe an apple martini, and then cross our fingers and pray that this actually works. Which I look forward to hearing about on multiple blogs,, and