Friday, October 16, 2009

Laurie? Lorrie? What's in a name?

We read for as many reasons as there are books. Some are life changing. Some put us to sleep, and sometimes that's what we want. Some we seek out and can't wait to read. Some we pick up on a whim.

I couldn't sleep the other night and got up and spent a couple hours reading a book I picked up from the "new mystery" shelf at the library in a fit of idle curiosity, for the sole reason that it was written by "another" Lorrie Moore, one whose name is spelled Laurie: Woman Slaughtered -- News at Ten. Not the best reason to take out a book, and I wasn't even sure I would read it. Definitely in the whim department. But it ended up putting me to sleep at last, for which I'm grateful.

Part of new "romantic suspense series" about young Fort Worth TV reporter Amber Wicklow who used to be the victim of the mean girls in her sorority, one of whom now turns up dead. Amber, who has recently been dumped by her boyfriend, doesn't really solve anything, but rather is swept up by events. The book humorously details Amber's struggles to make it as a reporter at the TV station, despite her empathy and tendency to cry on camera, and her falling in love with a rough, tough, nutty but adorable sheriff. Oh, and some women go missing and are found murdered. Along the way she and a menopausal receptionist, Rochelle, become friends and unite against the detestable prick of an investigative reporter Tig, who lords it over everyone at the station.

The book ends after an encounter with a psychotic killer in which Amber thinks she's going to die but of course is saved instead. Also thinks she'll lose her job, instead is promoted to anchor. And gets the guy of her dreams, the goofy sheriff, but just as they're about to go to bed, he tells her to pack her bags because the psychotic killer has escaped from prison. Thus postponing the consummation of their love and setting up the sequel. Yawn, time to go to sleep.

I found out later that all of Amazon's reviewers give it five stars, but there were only two of them. One is the notorious Harriet Klausner -- "fast-paced yet quite amusing." Amazon also helpfully notes that after viwing this item, 67% of its customers buy the Laurie Moore book and 16% buy The Gate at the Stairs by the other Moore, the one whose book has a lot more reviews and whose name is spelled Lorrie.

It was twilight, and the Sandhill Cranes were going for their evening walk along Lake Wingra

It's Twilight, and the Sandhill Cranes Are Going for their Evening Walk
It was the end of a long, dark, wet day. I was walking through the woods along the lake to get to my car, which I usually can't park on my block because street construction will trap it in the morning. All I saw was gloom, really. And then I saw the cranes. This is what usually happens when there are cranes. It's too dark or you have the wrong camera, the wrong lens or all of the above -- but it doesn't really matter. The magic is in the moment. When it passes. it becomes a wisp of memory. The photo is just a reminder.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Still hoping that President Obama brings peace, but not overwhelmingly optimistic

Hoping President Obama Brings Peace
This sign on the Bellevue Apartments on East Wilson Street reflects the hopes of so many people that President Obama would bring peace. Now, as his administration is about to complete its review of his Afghanistan strategy, decisions are being made that will determine whether the sign will turn out to be merely a savage irony or a prophecy. Either we step up our involvement, or we start to pull out. There really is no middle ground, because that's just another way to prolong the conflict. I'm not optimistic.

Tonight the BBC reports that the British government has been told the decision been made to approve McChrystal's request for more troops and that it will be announced next week.

Last night's much-touted Frontline documentary Obama's War played it both ways in a manner I recall from the Vietnam years (you can view the documentary at the link if you missed it). Those viewers who oppose the war (and they're in the majority) saw much to reinforce their view in the footage on the ground that included a tragic Marine fatality and showed the vast gulf of mistrust between the troops and the Afghan civilians they were there to help and protect. Meanwhile, the consensus of the expert talking heads -- including McChrystal and Holbrooke -- seemed to be that, no matter what we do, pulling out would have disastrous geopolitical and security consequences.

This has more in common with Vietnam than Iraq. The latter was definitely a Bush administration war. But the Afghanistan (and Pakistan) conflict is rapidly turning into a liberal (albeit hawkish liberal) Democratic war, conducted for all the most impeccable motives by the "best and the brightest."

Trouble is, they're too bright to recognize that we should cut our losses instead of pursuing a failed strategy that has already cost too many lives. Nation-building on behalf of brutal, corrupt local elites in a country whose culture we don't begin to understand was a recipe for disaster in Vietnam, a tragedy that took years to reach its tragic conclusion. It will be the same in Afghanistan (and we'll be lucky if our effort to impose our will on Afghanistan doesn't also throw Pakistan into the kind of chaos we brought to Cambodia). What a recipe for disaster.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

When the sense of enoughness gets lost, everything goes to hell

There was a funny Op-Ed by Calvin Trillin in the New York Times today about the collapse of the financial markets last fall. He attributes it to the migration of the smart guys to Wall Street, which previously had been staffed by Ivy League graduates in the bottom third of their class, nice guys who weren't particularly greedy. They were content to make enough money for a house in Greenwich and "maybe a sailboat." Then the smart people started inventing complicated, incomprehensible ways to make obscene amounts of money. Eventually the not-so-smart guys followed the lead of the smart guys.
When the smart guys started this business of securitizing things that didn’t even exist in the first place, who was running the firms they worked for? Our guys! The lower third of the class! Guys who didn’t have the foggiest notion of what a credit default swap was. All our guys knew was that they were getting disgustingly rich, and they had gotten to like that. All of that easy money had eaten away at their sense of enoughness.
Kind of says it all. When the sense of enoughness gets lost, everything goes to hell.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Advertising, megadoses of a miracle drug and the flu

The miracle drug was aspirin, the time was 1918, and the great Influenza Pandemic was raging. There was a hot new superdrug that was widely prescribed as a treatment, in doses that today would be considered insane. The drug was aspirin.
The Journal of the American Medical Association suggested a dose of 1,000 milligrams every three hours, the equivalent of almost 25 standard 325-milligram aspirin tablets in 24 hours. This is about twice the daily dosage generally considered safe today.
Today's New York Times reports on a paper that conjectures that at least some of the deaths associated with the epidemic may have been caused by this treatment.

Why was aspirin considered such a wonder drug? Bayer had lost its American patent protection in 1917. The market for aspirin had become very competitive and everyone was touting the merits of their own product. Trying to preserve market share for its brand, Bayer saturated the media with advertising touting its brand's purity. Little was known about the effects of large doses, and the theory seems to have been that if some is good, more is better.

Who is this masked stranger?

Who's That Masked Stranger?
Seems to be a Cedar Waxwing, photographed in the UW Arboretum near Lake Wingra, off Arbor Drive. Nice hat. More information here, including audio.

Good background reading for seeing Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story"

John Cassidy begins his recent New Yorker article, Rational Irrationality: The real reason capitalism is so crash prone, with a powerful metaphor for how people reacting to each other in a complex system can push that system into chaos unless stabilizers are built into the system.

When Queen Elizabeth opened London's high-tech Millennium Bridge in 2000, the bridge began to tilt and sway alarmingly when the first crowds started to walk across it. They tried to limit the number of pedestrians, but to no avail -- the bridge continued its distressing behavior and it was closed while engineers studied the problem.

It turns out that when a few people happen to fall in step on a bridge, they generate lateral forces that cause a very slight sway. Unconsciously, more people fall in step with the motion, and it becomes a self-reinforcing feedback system that runs out of control. Eventually, stabilizers were installed on the bridge and it's fine now.

Repairing our financial system, whose stabilizers have been removed by decades of utopian free market ideology won't be as easy. Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" chronicles the short-term thinking, greed and stupidity that fueled our financial bubble and its disastrous aftermath. But individual greed and stupidity also fuel normal markets, which supposedly correct for them through the operations of Adam Smith's "invisible hand." What went wrong? Cassidy puts it this way:
Unfortunately, the real causes of the crisis are much scarier and less amenable to reform: they have to do with the inner logic of an economy like ours. The root problem is what might be termed “rational irrationality”—behavior that, on the individual level, is perfectly reasonable but that, when aggregated in the marketplace, produces calamity.
Cassidy, whose article is excerpted from his upcoming book, How Markets Fail, focuses on how this played out in a financial marketplace where so many of the safeguards had been removed and largely unregulated new financial instruments moved into the void.

Although the players and many of the instruments they were trading were new, the chaotic dynamics of the market were as old as markets themselves. They were analyzed by John Maynard Keynes many years ago, and his work was behind many of the New Deal financial reforms, including the Glass-Steagall Act, which kept traditional banks from engaging in investment banking and brokerage activities. That was repealed in 1999, paving the way for today's "too big to fail" financial giants with their hands so deeply embedded in the public till. As Cassidy notes, the Obama Administration has shown no interest in reinstating Glass-Steagall.

But the lessons of history seem to be there mostly to be forgotten. What are the chances of meaningful reform that put some stabilizers back into the system? Cassidy doesn't seem too optimistic about Obama Administration reform initiatives and closes on an apprehensive note.
As memories of September, 2008, fade, many will say that the Great Crunch wasn’t so bad, after all, and skip over the vast government intervention that prevented a much, much worse outcome. Incentives for excessive risk-taking will revive, and so will the lobbying power of banks and other financial firms. “The window of opportunity for reform will not be open for long,” Hyun Song Shin wrote recently. Before the political will for reform dissipates, it is essential to reckon with the financial system’s fundamental design flaws. The next time the structure starts to lurch and sway, it could all fall down.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Doesn't play well with others

Doesn't Play Well with Others
Great Blue Herons are fairly solitary creatures in general -- and don't seem to have much use for ducks in particular. This one was so scrunched up against the cold this morning that it looked more scruffy than majestic, as herons do when standing tall. The nice thing about the unseasonably cold weather we've been having is that it has really cleared out Wingra Park, and with few people around, a greater variety of birds has been visiting the shoreline.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

World's largest statue of a woman with a badger on her head?

World's Largest Statue of a Woman with a Badger on Her Head?
My photo of the Capitol dome reflected in windows across the street at sunset was taken a few days before they put up the scaffolding that now surrounds the top of the dome. They must be doing some more renovation. The statue is by sculptor Daniel Chester French.

She is a gilded bronze statue named "Wisconsin," which symbolizes the state motto, "Forward." Wisconsin is 15 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs over 3 tons.

That must make her the largest statue of a woman with a badger on her head in the world. I mean, who else would bother?