Saturday, March 07, 2009

By far the most stressful time of year in Madison, and I don't mean taxes

The Most Stressful Time of Year in Madison and I Don't Mean Taxes
The box office opened today, and it's time make your picks for the Wisconsin Film Festival, April 2-5, before the films you really want to see sell out. But how to know what you really want to see? More than a 100 films in four days -- features, documentaries, shorts; foreign and domestic; restorations and premieres. Most will never be shown in theaters in Madison again. Make the wrong choice, and you lose your chance to see the neglected masterpiece, the gem everyone will be talking about later. Stressful, yes, but exciting, too. The online program guide is well organized, has lots of information, and makes online ordering easy. There's also a box office in the UW Memorial Union. Advance sales close April 1. After that a limited number of tickets are available at the screenings, but don't count on being able to get into the popular choices without an advance ticket.

Although we use the website for ordering and getting more information (and color), there's nothing like skimming the black and white print program guide distributed in advance by Isthmus for a quick overview. It's part of the ritual.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Requiem for a brand

Requiem for a Brand
Many treasured memories are preserved on fading Kodacolor film, the trademark under which Kodak first popularized color print photography. The brand was once so ubiquitous it was practically synonymous with the act of memory itself. But Kodak stopped using the brand for its color print film after a 65-year run in 2007, by which time digital photography had already displaced film cameras from most American homes. We’re all probably the better of for it, but there’s something sad about seeing what once was one of the most famous brands in the world cast loose from its moorings and settling in among niche products – including Kodak inkjet printers and, oddly enough, jigsaw puzzles.

The Kodacolor trademark has long been licensed to puzzle maker Warren Industries, a subsidiary of Rose Art Industries, a company founded in 1923 in the Bronx. Citizen Kane would have loved its original name: Rosebud Art Company.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Retailers had miserable February. This low-key approach may not be enough.

Asking your customers to stop in and see what's new may not be enough these days. February was another disaster area for the nation's retailers. There was one bright spot.
We believe falling gas prices significantly boosted household disposable income in February and therefore allowed for both more trips and more spending towards discretionary categories.
That's according to a spokesman for Wal-Mart, but the good fortune only seemed to apply to them. Their same store sales were up 5.1 percent over the year before.

Overall, retail sales were up 0.7 percent over the year before. But more significantly for most retailers, retail sales for February were down 4.1% if you exclude Wal-Mart. So Wal-Mart's success doesn't seem to be a measure of retailing's strength so much as the brute financial clout of the nation's leading retailer, which has pricing power and distribution efficiencies no other retailer can match. Good news for Wal-Mart is not necessarily good news for Main Street.

Wet part of the ice fishing season

This Is the Wet Part of the Ice Fishing Season
The high in Madison today is supposed to be 55F. These days, the ice fishers must slog through increasingly deep water atop the ice to drill their hole and fish below the ice (in this case, on Brittingham Bay, with John Nolen Drive and its tidy little trees in the background). The days of their frigid, solitary bliss are numbered.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The fireball that wasn't -- this time

The Fireball That Wasn't -- This Time
I saw some white scratches on the side of a dark blue minivan yesterday that reminded me of meteors streaking across the night sky, so I took some photos. This one looked as if it could use a bit of enhancing. So I enhanced. And enhanced. Didn't know where to stop.

The resulting fireball was probably inspired by the news Monday that a small asteroid just missed the earth by a cosmically insignificant 40,000 miles or so. It was in about the same size range as the one that exploded over Tunguska, Siberia in 1908. That one resulted in a 10-15-megaton upper atmosphere blast that leveled all the trees over an 800-square-mile area. See simulation.

I don't lose a lot of sleep over asteroid strikes, though one on that scale happens about once every hundred years, but I do wish that more of the technological ingenuity we devote to finding ever more efficient and high-tech ways of killing other humans could be devoted to defnding against these nonhuman killers.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Nice when they put a warning label on it

Sure Nice When They Label It
While the East Coast awoke this morning to crippling snow storms, in Wisconsin (except for the Milwaukee area, which had more than 10 inches of lake effect snow) we awoke to nothing worse than sunny skies, bitter cold and the occasional patch of black ice.

Trapped by ice up to her eyeballs and unable to breathe

Trapped by Ice Up to Her Eyeballs
Poor Liberty! Yesterday was the first of March, and she's still stuck. For her sake, I hope spring comes soon and she can rise up, shake off the water, take a deep breath and finally return home.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Before banks went bust, they went modernist, and in a final burst of creativity, postmodernist

Banking and finance used to be complicated, but not all that complicated. The basic principles could be understood by people who were not bankers. In recent years, that all changed, as ever more esoteric financial instruments were created that, it now seems, even the bankers did not understand. The foundations of our financial system collapsed as if the banking business were just a giant Ponzi Scheme, dragged down by collapsing assets that seemed to have all the substantiality of thin air. We started with common-sense notions of banks as giant piggybanks which, granted, could loan out more pennies than they actually had, because their depositors could be counted on not to take all their pennies out at once. We ended up with piggybanks filled, not with pennies, but with helium.

How did we get here? Awhile back, John Lanchester wrote a marvelous essay in The New Yorker in which he maintained that to understand modern banking, we need to look at some of the 20th century movements in modern art -- specifically, the movements known as modernism, and then later, postmodernism.
Finance, like other forms of human behavior, underwent a change in the twentieth century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts—a break with common sense, a turn toward self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn’t be explained in workaday English. In poetry, this moment took place with the publication of “The Waste Land.” In classical music, it was, perhaps, the première of “The Rite of Spring.” Jazz, dance, architecture, painting—all had comparable moments. The moment in finance came in 1973, with the publication of a paper in the Journal of Political Economy titled “The Pricing of Options and Corporate Liabilities,” by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes.
The building above is US Bank Plaza, the Skidmore, Owings and Merrill modernist structure on Madison's Capitol Square that started going up that same year, 1973. For Lanchester, this dates the time -- the development of the theoretical basis of the modern derivatives market -- when nonspecialists could no longer understand finance, paralleling a similar movement in the arts.
It seems wholly contrary to common sense that the market for products that derive from real things should be unimaginably vaster than the market for things themselves. With derivatives, we seem to enter a modernist world in which risk no longer means what it means in plain English, and in which there is a profound break between the language of finance and that of common sense. It is difficult for civilians to understand a derivatives contract, or any of a range of closely related instruments, such as credit-default swaps.
Common sense was out now. What was next? PostmodernIn the arts, modernism was followed by postmodernism. (The building at right is part of Madison's Block 89 redevelopment often described as eclectic and postmodern.) Lanchester contends that the same thing has happened in finance. In modernism, the meaning in art might be complex and fully accessible only to specialists, but there was no doubt in the art world that art did, in fact, have meaning. Postmodernism questioned the very idea of meaning, which was seen increasingly as something to be "deconstructed."
If the invention of derivatives was the financial world’s modernist dawn, the current crisis is unsettlingly like the birth of postmodernism. For anyone who studied literature in college in the past few decades, there is a weird familiarity about the current crisis: value, in the realm of finance capital, evokes the elusive nature of meaning in deconstructionism. According to Jacques Derrida, the doyen of the school, meaning can never be precisely located; instead, it is always “deferred,” moved elsewhere, located in other meanings, which refer and defer to other meanings—a snake permanently and necessarily eating its own tail. This process is fluid and constant, but at moments the perpetual process of deferral stalls and collapses in on itself. Derrida called this moment an “aporia,” from a Greek term meaning “impasse.” There is something both amusing and appalling about seeing his theories acted out in the world markets to such cataclysmic effect. Anyone invited to attend a meeting of the G-8 financial ministers would be well advised not to draw their attention to this.
From this point of view, you could say that Barack Obama faces the daunting task of bringing about a post-postmodernist restoration of faith in the meaning of our financial assets, or in financial terms, value.

Note: There are links and additional information about the Madison buildings shown here in my Flickr photostream. Click on the photos to get there.