Saturday, February 16, 2013

The age of organic reproduction

It is easy to forget that the age of mechanical reproduction is a mere speck in the eye of the age of organic reproduction. Organic reproduction is much on my mind, since I’ve come back to Atlanta in order to apply for my carte de longue sejour at the French consulate in Atlanta. Whenever I return to the Atlanta area, the landscape, the suburban streets, the lawns, the houses, and above all the particular slant of sunshine or lack of it always start up that peculiar form of organic reproduction called memory. Involuntary memory, Bergson called it – not the intentional kind, when I cast my mind back to recall exactly where I put the wallet and the keys, or the last time we changed Adam. Although I’ve been through the routine of remembering – through the medium of travelling down, say, Lavaca Road, past the I-285 exit, in the day’s mix of weather – every time I come back to Atlanta, still, it is not something I can control, nor can I predict the outcome of the mood it induces. Yesterday, we went to see my nephew Whit, and show him Adam, who, uncharacteristically, was a bit fussy there in the Java Monkey in Decatur, and needed to be fed. And then we returned to where we are staying, where we stayed the magic summer two years ago when we got married in the backyard – my brother Dan’s bungalow in Conyers. When I used to come to Atlanta from Austin, where I biked all the time, I was always impressed by the automobile induced discomfort of things – what is the deal with driving ten miles to go to a coffee shop? And now that I am coming from Paris, where two blocks in any direction will take me to a bakery, a butcher shop, a fruit market, a grocery store, a delicatessen, a museum, a Subway sandwich shop, a Lebanese sandwich shop, a Greek delicatessen, about twenty cafes – I have, even more, a sense of how exhausting it is to transport your skinny ass from A to B in America.
But casting aside those catcalls evoked by the American dream – there is another dream that comes up via organic routes deeplaid within me. This was the dream of being grown up, a dream I harbored between the third grade (in Indian Creek Elementary) up to the twelfth grade (in Clarkston High School). It was a dream nourished by pictures in story books, and movies, but most of all by – windows. Windows in classrooms. I remember little to nothing of, say, math class in the seventh grade (Jolly Elementary), but I remember looking out the window and longing to be free in that sunshine, going about my destiny in some tucked in adult life where – you could just suddenly get into your car and drive wherever you wanted to. Where you could camp out in the mountains, or at least climb Stone Mountain, preferably with a book under your arm. Perhaps one about owls. The weather in Atlanta comes to me coupled with the window – the front and rear windows of the car, the heavily draped window of the living room in the house I lived in, the windows in the metal doors leading out to the back fields where we did P.E. at Clarkston high.
To me, this is what longing is all about – it is an equation: a window + weather. And so it will ever be.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Tesla vs. Broder

I am loving the fight between Tesla and John M. Broder, the NYT hack. Broder's story about not being able to drive a Tesla Model S to Boston was responded to with a blizzard of data by Musk, the CEO of Tesla. In turn, Broder's story has turned from - I'm a normal guy on a normal drive and the model S failed me -  to I'm a clueless guy calling Tesla personnel every five minutes and they told me nasty lies which made me screw up my drive. 
Some tech writer on the web wrote that the response to this dispute differs between the automobile fans and the tech fans - the former are, predictably, all pro-Broder, the latter find him laughable. Polls show that the Ute, or Youth as they are also known, don't like cars. They like computers. I think this is a shot in that war. The automobilists cling to the gas powered car as though their whole lifestyle were at stake. And they aren't wrong. That lifestyle is at stake, and it is in its last stages. The automobile went from a liberating technology to a chain around our necks. I'm not sure Tesla's car is the solution to that, but it is different. And that unsettles the old hacks. Broder's account reads, after his corrections, more like trying to teach grandpa how to use email than a savvy consumer in a hyped up failure. I am amused how the press, in defense of one of their clueless own, is springing to Broder's defense. There is a priceless article in Slate which relies on the famous "objectivity" of the NYT to defend Broder - which is the kind of argument that can only be made by those so far in the tank that, like those sea snails you buy for acquariums, they are at the bottom, cleaning up the excrement.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

500 Days

I’ve started reading Eichenwald’s 500 Days, which is about the reign of error and terror that characterized the first half of the Bush administration. The preface contains an abbreviated countdown to 9/11, citing this or that FBI man or reporter who stumbled on the fact that something big was being planned. As is usual in the establishment press, we go easy here on the obvious: the massive incompetence of the Bush administration. If Al Gore had managed to pass through the coup designed by the court and the Bush handlers and actually assume the office of president to which he was elected, I’m pretty confident that Mohammed Atta and his merry crew would have ended up crashing a private plane into a tower in Portland Maine – if they managed to get on board a plane at all. Americans have a hard time facing up to the fact that the elite that they pay so much to is basically as dumb as any elite in history. These aren’t the smartest guys in the room, unless they have rented the room and put a bodyguard up to keep smart guys out.
Eichenwald has, unfortunately, imbibed the NYT anecdote heavy style of reporting. Thus we move between a disparate group of people as though we were in some badly directed episode of Homeland. Here’s a reporter three months before 9/11 interviewing Osama the B. Here’s a customs official two months before 9/11 deporting a mysterious Saudi. These events are covered in a minimal fashion, without any attempt to place them in a context. What would have made for a much more fascinating intro is a much denser stringing together of anticipatory events, because if ever there was an attack foretold, it was 9/11. The only people who didn’t know it was coming worked for the Bush administration in high offices. Just as they didn’t know that occupying Iraq was an expensive, long process, just as they didn’t know how to cope with Katrina, just as they allowed the economy to blow up in 2008 when, after Bear Stearns fell, the merest babe could have told them that they better move fast or the whole system would blow  - so it was with 9/11. But because the U.S. media has long taken its job to be one of providing fluff stories to disguise the awful and criminal incompetence of the powerful, we were treated to an imperial fan dance, and – incredibly – the man most responsible for allowing an amateur group of 19 to take down the WTC – George W. – became, for a while, the most popular president since the other George W – Washington, that is.
Now, there are many dimensions of bad. In one respect, surely, our worst president was Dwight Eisenhower, who presided over the era of above ground nuclear tests which resulted in – according to a study commissioned by Congress – around 200,000 extra cases of thyroid cancer, due to the release of the iodine isotope in the fallout. Of course, that is a conservative estimate, since the group was not allowed to investigate all the elements in the fallout that effected most of the country from these tests. Eisenhower also, as we now know from declassified NSA documents, played a Doctor Strangelove game with SAC, ordering our nuclear armed jets to penetrate Soviet Airspace on numerous occasions just to check on the Soviet response. If I were to nominate the most dangerous of all U.S. prezes, I’d have to go for Eisenhower.
But Bush is still in the running for greatest bad president, in that he stamped, or his spirit stamped, not only the first decade of the 21st century in these here states, but the second as well. Obama’s administration has so far been but a variable in the Bush paradigm of plutocratic incompetence. You could take Obama’s Defense, Justice and Treasury departments and comfortably plug them into the Bush administration. In this sense, Eichenwald’s book, minus the corny prose – Eichenwald can’t write about the hijacking without calling it a “murderous” hijacking, just in case the reader doesn’t know that people died – is a timely reminder that we are ruled by a meritocracy of shitheads.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

zombies and totems in economics

The Efficient Markets Hypothesis is one of John Quiggins Zombie ideas – intellectually discredited, yet still alive. And yet, this doesn’t mean that Quiggins is right about EMH, because he deals with it as though it were a model developed in a laboratory, which is the way economists regularly see themselves. I would state the case much differently. EMH – the idea that at any moment, the market collectively embodies more information than any one subject within it could have, and so is ultimately unriggable by any one subject – or, as it is more commonly put, the market can’t be beat -  is actually the belated justification for the speculative structure that sprang up in the financial community after the progressive wave at the beginning of the twentieth century ebbed. The ebbing of that wave was too bad. Roosevelt Republicans - partly just to bedevil Taft, but partly driven by the brain trust that had helped design the income tax and the laws governing interstate commerce - put up an agenda that would have: centralized the incorporation of interstate companies with the Commerce Department (still a vital reform - one of the great drivers of regulatory laxity in the U.S. is the ability of corporations to, in effect, choose their jurisdictions and rules, thus carving out practical 'offshore' havens in the U.S. (notoriously, Delaware); and put strict controls on stock trading by making it impossible to water stocks (a phrase that has now become antique, since it describes our entire speculative structure nowadays), again giving the Commerce department the power to order companies to reduce exaggerated market valuation - in essence, the market valuation should be at parity with the Commerce Department determined real value of the company. The best account that I know of is given in Lawrence Mitchel's The Speculation Economy, in the chapter entitled Transcendental Value. Modern speculation began as a commercial practice, not an economic model - and when models were finally found to 'explain' and justify it, it was already established, on the foundation of the defeat of the progressive movement. As is mostly the case, an economic model is not a prescription for how to do things, but an adjunct to the struggle between practices already in play. Whether you accept EMH or behaviorialist accounts, it doesn't really matter. The model is an epiphenomena. If economists had existed in pharaonic times, they would surely have produced efficiency and behavioral models of pyramid building. Putting to death EMH is like striking the totem resemblence of an animal instead of the animal itself. It doesn't really matter until you buy into the system of magic of which it is a part

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...