Monday, September 29, 2008

'We were the cool guys'

Just to continue (briefly this time) the thoughts I expressed a couple of days ago about the international financial crisis (and there were a few more signs yesterday and today -- in Britain, Iceland and Germany for example -- about just how international this is becoming): An article at the New York Times led me to an excellent episode of 'This American Life', a radio programme produced by Chicago public radio.

'The Giant Pool of Money' was broadcast back in May, but it offers one of the few clear explanations that I've seen of the various factors that came together over the last several years to give us all the wonderful spectacle of the shit hitting the financial fan.

(The original broadcast can be downloaded for a small fee, but -- perhaps for the more credit-crunched among you -- a free transcript is also available. That is the source of the quotes that follow.)

One of the strengths of the show is that it is largely based on interviews with actual people at all levels in the long chain of financial relationships that led to this crisis.

We meet, for instance, Clarence, who received a $540,000 loan against his house:

Alex Blumberg: And you basically borrowed that from the bank and they didn’t check your income?

Clarence Nathan: Right. It’s a no-income verification loan. They don't do that. It's almost like you pass a guy in the street and say: lend me 540,000 dollars? He says, what do you do? Hey, I got a job. OK. It seems that casual even though there are a lot of papers that get filled out and stuff flies all over with the faxed and emails. Essentially, that's ... that the process.

Alex Blumberg: Would you have loaned you the money?

Clarence Nathan: I wouldn't have loaned me the money. And nobody that I know would have loaned me the money. I know guys who are criminals who wouldn't loan me that and they break your knee-caps. I don’t know why the bank did it. I’m serious ... 540 thousand dollars to a person with bad credit.

The show also introduces us to an enormous pile of money -- about $70 trillion worldwide -- that was desperately looking for something to do and was bored with piddling returns on US Treasury bonds.

Now, how this incomprehensible sum of money led to Clarence getting a loan he had no business being anywhere near is a long story and involves meeting a few other people.

Like Glen, for example, who -- fresh out of college -- was making about $75-100,000 a month buying and selling these toxic mortgages.

And, apparently, spending it as fast as he could make it:

We ordered 3, 4 bottles of Cristal at $1000 per bottle. They bring it out, you know hey're walking through the crowd, they're holding the bottles over their heads. There's fire crackers , sparklers. You know, the little cocktail waitresses. You know so you order 3 or 4 bottles of those and they’re walking through the crowd and everyone’s like: Whoa, who's the cool guys? We were the cool guys.

Oh yes, absolutely. Very cool. Can I eat lunch at the cool kids table too, Glen? Oh, I'm sorry, you're not allowed to sit there yourself any more, are you?

Alex Blumberg: So give me your situation now. Can you pay all your bills now?

Glen Pizzolorusso: Not really. I borrowed some money from friends...from dad. Living in my house right now, we’re working with the bank to try to avoid foreclosure. At this point I’m dealing with an attorney. Trying to figure out if it just makes sense for me to walk away from the house.

Alex Blumberg: And have you made mortgage payments?

Glen Pizzolorusso: No. No.

That's right: after making millions dealing in mortgages of questionable value, Glen can't pay his own mortgage any more.

Anyway, Clarence and Glen obviously lived in different worlds, and they never met each other.

But the show's makers deserve a great deal of credit for managing to explain how people like them -- at different points in a long chain of responsibility -- made it extremely likely that the world economy is going to become a chilly place for at least the medium-term future.

How chilly?

In summing up, Blumberg downplays the more horrifying visions of a return to a 1930s-style depression:
That talk seems to have faded and there's more talk that the next few years will feel like the 1970s. There are lots of technical differences between this crisis and Jimmy Carter's malaise. But for the average person, it could feel the same. It's not an out-and-out depression. Everything's just kind of crappy. And not just in housing or banking but for the economy as a whole. It’s barely growing. There aren't a lot of new businesses, new jobs. Unemployment keeps creeping up. We're just sort of stuck, in neutral, for a while.

Anyone under, say, 45 probably doesn't remember that 1970's malaise too well. Anyone under 30 has barely known a US economy that wasn't growing. Now there's a decent chance we'll all get to see what life felt like in the '70s. Which isn't great. It's pretty bad, actually. Unless you're comparing it to the 1930’s.

And it maybe tells you a lot about the situation (or maybe just something about me) that 'everything's just kind of crappy' sounds somehow encouraging.

Till you remember that the report was completed back in May.

And things seem to have gotten worse since then.

Doing it Dodge(y) style

In this heady pre-ballot phase, hardly a day passes without my favourite American expat in Germany voicing his surprise whenever Europeans, whether in the media or in person, express their bewilderment about the possibility that the McCain and Palin nightmare-team might have a serious chance of winning the US-election. "Europeans just don't get America", he mutters, in the face of our all too optimistic expectation that a November triumph for this charming Mr Obama is inevitable.

Well, things also work the other way round: Americans don't get Europe. Because if they did, somebody would have told US car manufacturer Dodge that promising Germans a cheap deal on a new car will not make them have more babies.

Dodge, you see, is seriously worried about the declining birthrate in Germany, as Der Spiegel can reveal. The 1,37 Kinder produced per Frau, a recent company press release points out, make this country bottom of the league in Europe, nay the world. Whether this is actually true, is another question - some figures lead to a slightly different conclusion. But let's not be finicky.

In any case, in an act of corporate concern and generosity, Dodge has come up with a (pro-)creative solution, promoted via the ad-campaign Helden zeugen. The slogan, admittedly, is a cute little pun, meaning both "heroes reproduce" and "produce heroes". That's about as funny as it gets. Customers mad enough to want to buy a grotesque gas-guzzling Dodge monstrosity will have the leasing rates deferred for nine months (clever joke, eh?) if they are able to present a positive pregnancy test.

You can just imagine it, can't you? Hundreds of German couples storming their nearest Dodge-dealers, waving little plastic DIY pregnancy kits like magic wands and screaming: "Look: two stripes!"

Behind this smutty nudge-nudge, wink-wink campaign (for more untranslatable punning see the Spiegel article) is of course the fact that Dodge itself is at the bottom of a league table, albeit a different one: sales of cars in Germany.

I suppose one must wish Dodge luck for their daring - and, I presume, doomed, project. For whether it comes to birth rates or sales rates, I suspect that they won't succeed.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Interest don't come into it, darling!

I'm mildly enraged by the suggestion made by Kate Broad, the new head of Britain's national languages centre" (CILT) that foreign language teaching ought to remain optional in English schools.

In a dazzling display of razor-sharp argumentation and hard-hitting eloquence, she explains her position in an interview with The Independent:
At the end of the day, when it [foreign language learning] was compulsory, were they [pupils] learning or were they just sitting in the classroom? If you stick everybody in the classroom, are they really learning French or are they just sitting in there, getting bored and disruptive?

Now, I'm not only taken aback by the Palinesque incoherence of Mrs Broad's comment (which might be down to Palinesque subediting at The Independent, so I won't nag), I'm also puzzled by the casual calm with which she commits her well-nigh suicidal act of backstabbing.

Above all, however, I'm amazed by her apparent lack of understanding of the minds and psyches of adolescents (especially her firm belief that they might harbour deep interests in anything school related). So 14-16-year olds are more likely to become "bored and disruptive" by an exposure to French than, say, trigonometry or PSHE? Get real!

Methinks Mrs Broad ought to reconsider her take on her new position - as well as, possibly, languages in general. (Or is she speaking from experience? Maybe the new head of CILT was herself bored by her French lessons - which made her apply for the job in the first place?)

But then again, any reconsideration on Mrs Broad's part might be completely hypothetical, given that she seems to be hell bent on torpedoing the institution that she represents - whose motto, by the way, is "promoting a greater national capability in languages".

[UPDATE]: John has drawn my attention to a related post by Norm Geras, inspired by Naomi Alderman's contention "that if children are forced to do something they don't enjoy, it will backfire, turning them against whatever they're forced to do". Norm's laconic comment is spot on: "The problem with the assumption is that often people don't get to know whether they'll enjoy something without there being external pressure on them to do it".

I'm truly tired of this lame "interest" argument, partly because it has repeatedly been turned against me in the past. When certain "colleagues" of mine feel the need to be nasty, they sometimes do so by discounting my courses as being "not interesting" for our students. This is not only nonsensical, but also utterly autodestructive. If my teaching choices were determined by what students find "interesting", I would be spending the next 20 odd years teaching Bridget Jones's Diary and About a Boy and nothing but.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

All bundled up

So far, unlike The Wife, I've managed to maintain at least a shred of the post-vacation Zen with which we returned from France.

This is partly because I have consciously been avoiding news that might disturb my equilibrium. I have managed, for example, to escape reading anything lengthy about Sarah Palin in, oh, about three weeks now. Furthermore, the headlines about the election that I have tentatively perused have lately been signalling that things just might actually be going pretty well on that score.

And I've been listening to a lot of death metal recently, which, curiously enough, always seems to leave me with a deep sense of inner tranquilty.

These factors all might play a role. But I suspect my relative well-being is also partly down to the fact that the main political issue I've spent any time reading about in the last few days has led to more befuddlement than -- at least so far -- blind rage.

I'm referring to the financial...crash...bailout...collapse...thingy.

Don't get me wrong: I'm quite clear that there are plenty of reasons for anger here and lots of people who I will decide, I am sure, need a good kicking.

All in good time.

But it's occurred to me that I'm still a bit...confused about just what, exactly, it is that's in the process of collapsing and, precisely, what that proposed $700 billion is going to be used for in the interests of preventing the Utter and Complete Meltdown of the American Economy.

I mean, it helps if you can attach an image to a economic crisis. Tulipmania was about, well, tulips, and even if the value of a tulip is a pretty abstract thing, you still know something about the rational core of the madness that resulted. The Great Depression? Yep, have plenty of visuals on that, dustbowls and all the rest. The oil crisis of the 70s? I have personal memories of 'no gas' signs and waiting in long lines to tank up the car. The villains were clear: bearded men with sunglasses and funny headgear. The dotcom bubble? No problem. I knew what a browser was and the villains were smirking 23-year-olds who burned through billions of semi-imaginary dollars based on semi-imaginary business plans.

But I'm trying to visualise a 'collateralized debt obligation' or a 'credit-default swap' (more on these below) and I just...can't get there.

And I don't like admitting that kind of confusion, since, you know, I like to think that I have a reasonably well-informed understanding of how the world works.

But, on this issue, I have to say that my grasp of things is only a bit sketchy.

On that score, though, it's becoming clear to me that I'm not the only one.

At the New York Times today, Vikas Bajaj has an interesting little article with the intriguing title 'What's all this stuff worth?'

And, you know, it turns out that answering that question is a bit more difficult than you might think.

Vikas, over to you:
Consider the Bear Stearns Alt-A Trust 2006-7, a $1.3 billion drop in the sea of risky loans. Here’s how it worked:

As the credit bubble grew in 2006, Bear Stearns, then one of the leading mortgage traders on Wall Street, bought 2,871 mortgages from lenders like the Countrywide Financial Corporation.

The mortgages, with an average size of about $450,000, were Alt-A loans — the kind often referred to as liar loans, because lenders made them without the usual documentation to verify borrowers’ incomes or savings.

Let's just pause here for a brief moment. Just for a measly few seconds.

Please just consider that last sentence, the one in which it is pointed out that lenders gave people mortgages worth an average of nearly a half-million dollars without even checking how much they earned or how much money they had?

Is this for real?

Because if it is, I can only say: What--please pardon my French (you know, I've been spending some time there)--the fuck?!

A few years ago (when things were still going generally well in the banking world, mind) our mortgage application (for, ahem, a lot less than the above-mentioned average) to buy our house in Germany required that we submit ourselves to bank scrutiny that felt like the financial equivalent of a colonoscopy.

You mean in America, we could've gotten more than twice as much without even having to prove we could pay it back?


Ok, let's continue...

Bear Stearns bundled the loans into 37 different kinds of bonds, ranked by varying levels of risk, for sale to investment banks, hedge funds and insurance companies.

If any of the mortgages went bad — and, it turned out, many did — the bonds at the bottom of the pecking order would suffer losses first, followed by the next lowest, and so on up the chain. By one measure, the Bear Stearns Alt-A Trust 2006-7 has performed well: It has suffered losses of about 1.6 percent. Of those loans, 778 have been paid off or moved through the foreclosure process.

But by many other measures, it’s a toxic portfolio. Of the 2,093 loans that remain, 23 percent are delinquent or in foreclosure, according to Bloomberg News data. Initially rated triple-A, the most senior of the securities were downgraded to near junk bond status last week. Valuing mortgage bonds, even the safest variety, requires guesstimates: How many homeowners will fall behind on their mortgages? If the bank forecloses, what will the homes sell for? Investments like the Bear Stearns securities are almost certain to lose value as long as home prices keep falling.

Ah, 'bundled' is such a nice cosy word, isn't it? It doesn't seem quite the right word for what's been described here, which seems--if I have this right, and there's no guarantee that I do--to involve something like this:

You have a bunch of dodgy loans, which have been repackaged as a shiny new financial product mixed up with a bunch of other products conjured up via a similar kind of investment bank voodoo. This tasty cocktail has thereafter been blessed by a rating agency with the label 'triple A' based on 'guesstimates' and sold to people who think they are making a solid 'investment'.

Ah. Yes.

I am, as I've said, a Fucking Moron when it comes to complicated finances: but I can't for the life of me see how this was a good idea.

But it gets better:

The Bear Stearns bonds are just one example of the kind of assets the government could buy, and they are by no means the most complicated of the lot. Wall Street took bonds like those of Bear Stearns and bundled and rebundled them into even trickier investments known as collateralized debt obligations, or C.D.O.’s

“No two pieces of paper are the same,” said Mr. Feltus of Pioneer Investments.

'Bundled and rebundled'. Excellent!

Now, I suppose it's obvious that while this might all seem terribly complex to your average person who doesn't know all that much about economics, like yours truly (or, say, by his own admission, John 'I have to skip the debate so I can go off and singlehandedly solve the crisis I had a role in creating' McCain), clearly the people who were, you know, running the system knew what was going on.

Didn't they?

Yes, you would think that wouldn't you?

However, in a flabbergasting article that I read in the International Herald Tribune while still on vacation, it seems that many of them did not know what it was they were selling.

In Nelson D. Schwartz's 'A crisis too complex for easy fixes' (the title in the print version I bought on the Normandy coast was the far more direct 'Complexity of trading overwhelmed the traders', but it might be that that the more critical title was intended only for foreign distribution in communist countries like France) we find suggestions that a lot of the people -- even the senior people -- casting their kooky financial magic spells didn't really know what kind of dark forces they were meddling with:

In some ways, Wall Street suffers from a generation gap. At 62, Richard Fuld, the head of Lehman Brothers, had ridden out everything from the oil shocks of the 1970s to the Russian debt default and Asian economic flu in 1998. But in recent years, his firm and other Wall Street giants derived an ever-increasing share of profits from products that barely existed a decade ago, like credit-default swaps. Essentially insurance on debt, the market for credit-default swaps has ballooned from $900 billion in 2001 to a nearly unimaginable $45.5 trillion now.

Um, yes, nearly unimaginable. Anyway...

Jamie Cawley, a veteran player in the credit-default swaps market, says he doubts whether the older chiefs of the firms who profited from these products, or the young traders who specialized in them, fully understood the implications of what they were doing.

"Had they understood the implications, we wouldn't be where we are today," said Cawley, founder and chief executive of IDX Capital. The overriding feeling on Wall Street, he said, was: "Let's make money while the sun shines and worry about the details later."

Aw shucks, that's a great feeling, ain't it? What a bunch of fun!

Tell me: is cocaine still as popular as it once was on Wall Street? Because this sounds like the kind of killer Good Times that would only sound convincing and sensible to a bunch of coked up Harvard Business School grads.

Yes, these are the people to whom we were told we should trust the privatisation of Social Security not all that long ago. I shudder to think what they might have 'rebundled' that into.

And they were being paid so much money for their fine stewardship of the nation's key financial giants...

The compensation of Fuld and other Wall Street chief executives followed a similar trajectory higher during the earlier boom years.

"If you're approving things you don't understand, that's not doing your job," said Jonathan Koppell, director of the Millstein Center for Corporate Governance and Performance at the Yale School of Management. "What are these guys compensated for, if they're checking off things they don't understand?"

"A huge number of directors probably didn't understand what their companies were up to, and it's quite likely at least some of the leaders of these companies didn't fully understand what their employees were doing," he added.

Some of these are, remember, quite possibly those companies that we've been told are 'too big to fail', that have to be rescued by a pretty massive infusion of public money or Economic Life as We Know It will come to a halt.

Two final thoughts on this issue for the moment, as it's nearing bed-time and I'm beginning to feel angry and, you know, I don't want to go to bed angry.

One comes from Bernie Sanders (via Dale):

We must end the danger posed by companies that are "too big too fail," that is, companies whose failure would cause systemic harm to the U.S. economy. If a company is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. We need to determine which companies fall in this category and then break them up. Right now, for example, the Bank of America, the nation's largest depository institution, has absorbed Countrywide, the nation's largest mortgage lender, and Merrill Lynch, the nation's largest brokerage house. We should not be trying to solve the current financial crisis by creating even larger, more powerful institutions. Their failure could cause even more harm to the entire economy.

To which I can only add, as Sarah Palin might put it, yup.

The second is an interesting look at exactly what $700 billion actually means, at Slate:

If the federal government siphoned off Florida's gross domestic product, we could cover the bailout. Invading the Netherlands might be advisable—that nation's GDP was $768.7 billion last year. Of course, invasions cost a lot of money. Back in 2003, the Bush administration told Congress that the Iraq war would cost between $60 billion and $100 billion, but it's estimated that, so far, we've spent about $600 billion. Should the Treasury receive authority from Congress to borrow $700 billion, the national debt will rise by only about 7 percent. Right now, it's sitting at $9.6 trillion.

A variety of other measures are in the article. Whether it's a lot of money or a nearly unimaginable amount of money, I leave to your own discretion, dear reader.

So, maybe, considering the scale of this thing and the apparent fact that a lot of people who were supposed to understand it (and who were paid substantial sums of money on that assumption) were asleep at the wheel, I don't feel so bad.

I mean, I have to reveal my ignorance only to that select circle of readers of this humble blog.

Sarah Palin has to do it on national television.

(Via Dale and Andrew: great minds thinking alike tonight)

Finally, in the course of writing what has turned out to be a much longer post than I intended at the start (if you're still here, well, thanks for sticking around for the ride), it has occurred to me that the word 'bundling' -- long before it was adopted by Wall Street banks as a means of recycling toxic waste -- was a term used by Robert A. Heinlein in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (one of my favourite science fiction novels) as a futuristic slang term for, ahem, sexual intercourse.

Seeing that the financial system appears thoroughly fucked, this somehow seemed appropriate.

At least enough to inspire the title of a blog post.

Good night, folks.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Splendidly unangry? Bollocks!

See, this is what I mean: here I am, calm as a yogi after two weeks without the internet, and I'm in a frenzy after two minutes with the Pail online. But then, what kind of a crap headline is this:

MoD apologises to harassed lesbian soldier as her 6ft 2in German girlfriend looks on.

Oh yezz, those gigantesque German lesbians prowling the streets of merry old England, programmed to pluck innocent English roses fresh from their military training in North Yorkshire. The, until now secret, inhumane products of uncanny WWII experiments involving the use of radioactivity and Ovaltine, carried out in secret subterranean laboratories by merciless doctors with scarred faces, wearing eye-patches (or optional monocle) and riding boots and sporting a maniacal laugh, now threatening to unsettle English life as it has hitherto been known.

And they fly planes for Lufthansa (or Luftwaffe, as my late mother-in-law would have put it). Oh, the world going to hell in a hand basket ....

Dammit, the anger seems to be back. So much for getting work done!

He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy

Don't expect anything extensive, thoughtful or deep from me for a while: it's not only that I've been feeling a bit under the weather since catching my first cold in four years while in Lyon (of all places) after being dragged around the city's Roman amphitheatre by a gaggle of world-famous (and apparently intrepid) crime historians during a major downpour, I also have a Pic du Canigou of work sitting on my desk, whose current apparent insurmountability brings tears to my eyes.

Plus after a good two weeks of radically limited internet access, I feel splendidly unangry with the world. You see: we simply missed most of the bad shit that's been hitting fans worldwide, or only learnt about it from foreign language sources, which I always find to be a subtly alleviating experience. And the lack of broadband on demand has meant that the countless diverting banal tidbits that we typically snack on throughout the day have gone uneaten in these parts.

So instead of a rant, it's time to sing a couple of praises. I am truly very happy that Monty Python's Life of Brian will finally be shown in Torbay, that Omphalos of high morality and deep culture on the English "Riviera", whence it was banned when the film was released in 1980.

That kind of warrants a bit of a sing along, don't it, or a rousing hosanna or two? Not least since a good part of the English branch of John's family can now enjoy a nice, sacrilegious night at the movies without having to travel to foreign Dorset.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

We'll be like bugs when they break through a cocoon

Well, after a couple of weeks and a couple of thousand highway kilometres around France (a vaguely oval shaped journey from north coast to south coast and back again with a quick stop in Spain thrown into the bargain) we are back.

We are also a bit swamped with Things That Need Doing, so the resumption of normal broadcasting may wait a short while.

Both of us have been, after all, largely bereft of world news (and almost entirely bereft of the internet...wi-fi is fairly readily available on the Route du Soleil, but in Normandy...well, not so much) for a good couple of weeks. We have catching up to do.

Rest assured, we'll be filling you in on our travels and thoughts on all and sundry sooner than you might think (or might wish).

But to be brief, we understand that, with regard to the international finance system, there was a near total collapse that made everyone very sad, then a rescue package that made everyone very happy and, since then, a lot of wondering about whether they should have been either so sad or so happy to begin with.

We have been pondering why we have assumed that the financial experts shoving tonnes of money around the world know what they're doing. We assume this no more. Which, if nothing else, might be a useful lesson to learn.

Otherwise, we mourn (and we mean this) the loss of Thomas Dörflein (the former caretaker of one very popular German polar bear), who died much too suddenly and young as well as Rick Wright (keyboard player for a band that has been important to one of us for going on about two decades now).

Otherwise, it seems like pretty much business as usual to me. But that view might change after some perusing of our friends' blog archives...

But, just to entertain you till we're back on track and also to support The Wife's astute recommendation, I wanted to give you another joyous dose of Herman Dune.

Herman Dune, 'I Wish That I Could See You Soon'

This song makes me very happy. I hope it does the same for you.

Even if you're an investment banker and haven't had a lot to be happy about recently.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

En Route Greetings

Well, here we are at Chateau Bakewell in Carcassonne, sending you a quick musical missive before dinner. I don`t know how Herman Dune could have escaped our notice for so long ... I guess we have a bit of catching up to do!

Herman Dune, "Not on Top"

Saturday, September 06, 2008

What is the French for 'road trip'?

So, we're back for a brief moment before heading off again....

Leeds was great fun, even if the weather was uncooperative. (On the other hand: what would a northern English town be without torrential downpours? Um...yes...far more pleasant. Never mind...) Thanks are due to the organisers of a consistently enlightening conference on cutting-edge crime history.

It's nice to return home, if only briefly, to find a house intact, several more tomatoes in the garden and my long-awaited gun licence.

However, we're off again tomorrow morning...

The way back was also interesting. We very much appreciate the efforts of the station manager at Manchester Piccadilly rail station (apparently known by a radio call sign something like 'Foxtrot Alpha Hotel Terrier' or least that's what it sounded like) who helped to ensure that we got to Manchester Airport despite flooded train lines.

We also exchanged some interesting comments with him on the privatisation and fragmentation of transportation services in Britain. He was certainly a well-informed and opinionated man...who seemed to have a genuine sense of responsibility for the people in his station trying to get somewhere.

A rare characteristic these days.

We later encountered -- in some way -- both the best and worst of Brits abroad via the flight home. On the one hand, we were sat next to a 30ish woman coming over to Germany for some kind of DJ-related event who would not stop generating banal chatter about everything possible. Moreover, she demonstrated the heights of high-maintenance troublemaking by kicking off a minor fuss when the airline didn't have brown sugar. It was 'refined' she said, which made it All Kinds of Evil. At the same time -- for unexpressed reasons -- she was disappointed at the lack of 'real milk' to add to her coffee. Nonetheless: she had consumed about half a pack of Starburst fruit chews and scarfed the offered chocolate bar without a second thought about all the refined sugar and possibly questionable dairy products they might have contained.

She was, you might have guessed, rather an annoyance.

However, on the ground in Frankfurt and while waiting for our luggage, we encountered a delightful gentleman of a somewhat older generation (and rather working-class origins, as best I could tell) who raved to us eagerly about Berlin. 'A magical city' was the phrase he used, and he enthused about having walked down Unter den Linden as if it were the achievement of a lifelong dream. (Even if he had lost a pair of glasses on that trip.)

We spoke to him for all of five minutes, but his charm and normality were enough to (almost) wipe away the previous hour-and-a-half's torment at the hands of Rave Lady.

In academic terms, things went well, which means I made my point without having anything too sharp and pointy thrown at me. I learned a lot from what other people in my field had to say (and I have long thought that people in crime history are quite a good -- read sane, intelligent and creative-- bunch...this conference not giving me any reason to doubt that assessment) and I hope that they found what I had to say at least worth considering.

Tomorrow, it's off to France (as has been our practice in previous years, as also reported here). First to Normandy for a few days, then to Lyon (for another conference), Padern, Carcassone and then back to the Normandy coast for what will prove to be too short a while.

I'm bringing along a few books I've agreed to review in my field and some preliminary research for an upcoming project. Otherwise, I'll be delving into Richard Evans's The Coming of the Third Reich and H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories, giving me both a bit of real historical horror and some fantasy supernatural horror.

In our experience, internet cafes in provincial France are rather rare things. We will try to check in as much as possible, however, and might even post a few photos from what will be a rather long voyage de la route.

And, of course, we'll be thinking about you.

Well, some of you.

Uh....certainly a select few.

In any case: au revoir.

And keep those mooseburgers warm (note: four different links there...) until we return, you mavericks!

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

An actor, not a Jedi

Heading for the airport in an hour, but needed one more hit of election news....

A nice round-up of events inside the hall from the Republican National Convention from Ezra Klein:

On Fred Thompson's recounting of McCain's biography:

The story was well told, but it's testament to McCain's reluctance to speak about his war record that by this point in the election, the mute can tell it, the forgetful can recall it, and the blind can sketch it.

On Joe Lieberman:

And ah, Joe. Eight years ago, you were the vice presidential nominee. Four years ago, you were begging Democrats for their presidential nomination. Two years ago, you were defeated in a Democratic primary. Now you're at the Republican convention. Lieberman is at the Xcel Center for much the reason that pet goldfish spend their days in a neon castle: He has nowhere else to go.


He's a famed old Washington player assuring the audience that his buddy, another famed Washington player, is the guy who can really change Washington.

On The Message:

There were a few threads running throughout the night. Hurricane Gustav is very sad. John McCain is a POW. Sarah Palin is great pick, a great great pick, we totally love her and are not lying and the Democrats must be very scared because she is very experienced. And Barack Obama is inexperienced. The first message emerged sharply. So did the second. The third argument sounded tinny and defensive, particularly when Fred Thompson said the other side is in a "panic." Note to Thompson: You're an actor, not a Jedi. These were the droids we were looking for, and Palin is still on the cover of US Weekly, looking like Mama Spears.

Maybe Thompson got that Jedi delusion from McCain adviser Charlie Black, who said:

“She’s going to learn national security at the foot of the master for the next four years, and most doctors think that he’ll be around at least that long,” said Charlie Black, one of Mr. McCain’s top advisers, making light of concerns about Mr. McCain’s health, which Mr. McCain’s doctors reported as excellent in May.

Yes....young and crazy, she is. Strong in her, flows the dark side...

Besides: May. Dude, that's like months ago....

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In a world where movie trailers just won't be the same

You may not know the name Don LaFontaine. However, if you've ever seen a movie trailer in English, odds are you've heard his voice.

You know the one...

Sadly, it appears that he has died, aged 68.

His work, however, lives on.

Deathwish 4

Sinbad of the Seven Seas

GEICO (insurance) ad

Obscene Desserts: Live at Leeds

We're off for a few days as we head to the far north (well...Yorkshire, Leeds to be precise) where I'll be giving a talk at a crime history conference.

This comes as an opportune time, as it will put a halt to my sudden obsession with the increasingly entertaining US election. Which I do not think is entirely healthy.

The conference promises to be very interesting. (I hope they'll say the same about my contribution...the organisers have put me in with some illustrious company.)

Even if it is certain to be a lot quieter than this:

Rock on!

A magical election

At, the 2008 election in the form of a Magic: The Gathering deck:

A small sample...


(The reference, in case you've not been following the election all that obsessively.)

Ron Paul Supporters:


John McCain:

(I'm assuming that you know who this guy is.)


Would you eat this mushroom?

Er - people? Ahm - can I, maybe, briefly take your minds off the whole "Palin/Palin offspring (or not?)/Palin soon to be son-in-law is a foul-mouthed redneck" brouhaha and tell you about what else happened in the world? Like: really important things? Such as the accidental mushroom poisoning of famous Horse Whisperer author Nicholas Evans, who is is currently in hospital in Scotland after ingesting several specimens of potentially fatal Fool's Webcap.

Fool's Webcap - sounds nice, doesn't it? Sounds like a seventies' band with a habit of getting high on Fool's Webcap.

Looks really vicious:

Cortinarius rubellus. Now there's a good name for a kid. "Cortinarius - cum 'ere or ah'll smack yer!"

In German, this dangerous fungus is called Spitzgebuckelter Raukopf. Which would make a somewhat less attractive name for your offspring. Or a band, for that matter.

But maybe Sarah Palin might consider to use it for her redneck sprog ... oooh, will you shut up?

Why on earth anybody in their right mind would wish to eat those, I don't know. They have "kill, kill" written all over them. And while I do feel sorry for Mr Evans and wish him well, I'm afraid I also have to say that he is not a very clever man.

A well-oiled election machine in action

The McCain campaign is going to have to get better at explaining itself.

I almost felt bad for them while watching this exchange between CNN talking head Campbell Brown and campaign spokesperson Tucker Bounds.

Running a small state national guard = 'foreign policy experience'. How interesting. You learn something new every day.

A few worthwhile comments also available at Obsidian Wings on the 'experience' meme.

Palin was mayor of a town that has a fraction of the people present at an NFL game. She was also governor of a thinly-populated state — following an anti-incumbent reaction against corruption — that doesn’t have to struggle as much with limited budget revenues because of the state’s natural resources. She’s never been in the national spotlight, never operated under extreme stress, and just hasn’t had the type of responsibilities that even a governor of say Florida or California would have had.

Obama, by contrast, has had a much tougher time. He became a state legislator by navigating the local politics of a major urban center. He’s been a Senator. And most importantly, he’s been under unrelenting scrutiny for years — managing a presidential campaign masterfully and knocking off a Democratic President’s financial and political machine.

He’s also had to master the national spotlight, and respond to a million different type of questions. He’s also developed extensive policy positions and has defended them in debates and to the public for years. And he’s never lost his cool, showing calm judgment coupled with far-sighted strategic planning (e.g., early organizing, hesitancy to chase the news cycle).

In short, Palin’s “experience” trumps Obama’s only by elevating arbitrary categories over underlying factual realities. Now, it might be different if she had governed a state of many millions (like Reagan) and had won re-election. But she hasn’t — and the idea that calling everything “executive” trumps Obama’s accomplishments just doesn’t work.
As a commenter at the site points out: by a similar definition, Palin has more 'executive experience' than McCain.

...and the law won.

Further to my earlier post on the widespread police raids in Minneapolis....

Glenn Greenwald reports:

Beginning last night, St. Paul was the most militarized I have ever seen an American city be, even more so than Manhattan in the week of 9/11 -- with troops of federal, state and local law enforcement agents marching around with riot gear, machine guns, and tear gas cannisters, shouting military chants and marching in military formations. Humvees and law enforcement officers with rifles were posted on various buildings and balconies. Numerous protesters and observers were tear gassed and injured.

It is clear that a relatively small group of protesters -- some of them possibly a bit dangerous, some of them possibly a bit silly -- have caused some mayhem on the fringes of a medium-sized and largely peaceful demonstration.

On the other hand, there are many suggestions that the police are overreacting (and were...over...what, 'over-preempting'?) to what is happening on the ground there.

Greenwald has a lot of links to images and stories and videos.

We saw some of this in Denver, and there is a remarkable video of ABC correspondent ASA Eslocker being shoved into the street, placed in what looks like a chokehold and arrested by Denver police. It's worth getting through the advert to watch, since it appears clear that Eslocker did nothing to provoke the kind of treatment he received.

The equivalent from Minneapolis so far seems to be the arrest of Democracy Now broadcaster Amy Goodman for...well, so far as I can tell, for requesting to speak to a police supervisor after finding out that two of her crew had been arrested and roughed up while covering the protests.

Goodman was shortly after released and described what happened to her and other members of her crew (all, so far as I can tell, with clearly visible press credentials).

Again, keep in mind that if things like this can happen with impunity to credentialed journalists like Eslocker and Goodman (et al.), what might you think is happening to your ordinary demonstrator or bystander?

This shouldn't be a partisan issue: I would expect Republicans -- who talk a lot about freedom and liberty and the need to limit state power when it suits them -- to express at least some concern about what appears to be a very heavy hand here.

I'm not holding my breath, though.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Let's do the time warp again

One of my favourite quotes is the -- possibly apocryphal -- statement attributed to Texas Governor Miriam Amanda 'Ma' Ferguson:

'If the King's English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it's good enough for the children of Texas!'

Whether the attribution is correct or not, it -- and other statements like it, which often grant St. Paul familiarity with either English or the KJV -- have always succinctly expressed a certain attitude that you encounter more often than you'd like to: self-righteousness combined with ignorance.

How delightful, then, to find a similar, and more reliably sourced, addition to this great tradition.

When running for governor of Alaska in 2006, Sarah Palin (and other candidates) were sent a questionnaire that asked their opinions on a variety of topics.

Let's see if you can find what's wrong with her answer (via The Stone of Tear, via PZ):

11. Are you offended by the phrase “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance? Why or why not?

[Palin:] Not on your life. If it was good enough for the founding fathers, its good enough for me and I’ll fight in defense of our Pledge of Allegiance.

Spotted it?

That's right: the pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy (a Christian socialist no less).

Its original version, moreover, was a bit simpler than today's: 'I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'

'Under God' was added in 1954.

I like the original version better.

If it was good enough for Francis Bellamy, it's good enough for me.

We All Deserve Better®